Silly Putty

I’m republishing this old blog entry – slightly edited – from 2007. Amazingly, the core ideas in it remain applicable today:
My stretching of the silly putty that is TPRS has taken many forms over the years, as I’m sure is true for all of us. I have tinkered and probed, laughed and gnashed my teeth, dreamed and lay awake at night thinking about the vice of change I was in at that point in my study of the method, all in my quest to get to deeper levels of what CI means.
I have explored what it means to authentically personalize a class. I have experimented around with various ways of reading. I even explored the Realm for three years, after which I had to lovingly let it go.
I miss the Realm. But it wasn’t going to work in my classroom. This is about what can work in our classrooms, after all, isn’t it? If it can’t be shown to work in our classrooms, then why are we talking about it?
All I can say is that after stretching that silly putty that is TPRS/CI in all sorts of directions, it has bounced back into shape every single time. Blaine’s three steps are what they are – inspired genius. Why stray from them? I have challenged them and they have proven themselves in my classroom time and time again. Nobody has since walked into my classroom and shown me better.
The more we think we are “adapting” TPRS/CI to our own needs, perhaps we are really unwittingly pulling ourselves away from it. If we were but to do it as it is done by the few master teachers – Jason, Blaine, and Susie – if we could get to that point of mastery, it would serve us beyond our wildest pedagogical dreams, and we would never look back. 
There has been a desire by some to simplify the method, to rename it, to package it in a way that would make it more easily accessible to those who can’t seem to learn it.
The thinking by those people, perhaps, is that if it were repackaged, especially in a package with little computers on the wrapping paper, it would work better. I don’t think this is true. What Blaine has invented is too simple to be improved upon, and it works in classrooms.
Whether we call it storyasking or storytelling or CI or whatever doesn’t matter much, really. It is not the method nor its terminology, but we who need to change.

We need to open up our minds to what CI really is. We need to open up our hearts to what P really means. We need to get more into little groups of people working together as Doug wants to do in Orange County.

We need to take responsibility for our emotional reaction to what TPRS asks us to do. We need to make the internal and emotional changes that allow us to get PQA and stories going in our classes. We need to get off the pity potty that we run to when we blow up in the middle of a story, and look honestly at what we did and what we can learn from that event. We need colleagues around us – in our buildings! – who will work with us in that interest. We need to know that it’s o.k. to suck and that we can take breaks like Marc just talked about here.

And we need to always give ourselves permission to rely more heavily on reading CI plus spin-offs when necessary. It may not be as much fun, and, as Lynn very importantly pointed out here a few days ago – the comprehension may go down, but I would  just work with that by going more slowly and perhaps spinning more, or choosing appropriate level texts. I will always be working on trying to figure out ways to get the kids to read more.

And of course, we need to allow ourselves to not feel weird if the kids are doing FVR for as much as an entire class period – Krashen is not Krashen because he made shit up about the value of silent reading.

We need to stop saying that the method has failed us. I have worked at this stuff so intensely over the years, pummeling it, beating on it, crying, yelling, falling down, getting in a few good shots, only to have it pop back into it’s original shape as TPRS/CI and smile lovingly back and say, “Having fun?”
Perhaps if it ain’t broke we shouldn’t try to fix it. If TPRS/CI is employed properly, it will not fail any honest teacher.
The three steps work to produce huge gains in acquisition. We all know that the three steps are powerful, elegant tools in teaching language. But there has been in the TPRS community a kind of “let’s tinker with this and that” and “TPRS is always changing” and “I do TPRS but I only do these things and not those things.” Maybe we should not do that.
I am not saying we shouldn’t move forward together – of course we should and we will, those of us who can stand the heat.  But let’s not tinker so much that we overly stress the silly putty and it breaks. Let’s not lie to ourselves by claiming that there is a different form of TPRS for every teacher out there. Anything tested too severely can fail the person testing it. That would be a great loss to that person.
I am not saying there aren’t great new things to uncover in TPRS – there are, because the method is an ocean. But we must also remember the truth from Beaumarchais – “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.



1 thought on “Silly Putty”

  1. I’m republishing this old blog entry – slightly edited – from 2007. What prompted this, I wonder?
    There has been a desire by some to simplify the method, to rename it, to package it in a way that would make it more easily accessible to those who can’t seem to learn it.
    I’m very leery of “make it more accessible to those who can’t seem to learn from it”, because there are so many reasons why that might happen. At the Shimabara, Japan, workshop, Susie Gross (when asked to talk about college classes) said, “45 minutes once a week? Forget it!” (Actually, it’s usually 90 minutes a week minimum, sometimes much more because students have more than 1 English (EFL) class, so I feel there is some hope.) However, I take the point: TPRS/CI teachers are aiming at fluency, at actual practical ability to use the language (ideally, according to Krashen, at an intermediate level). Once a week is not enough. If that is the case, then perhaps teachers teaching just once a week should re-consider whether they are justified in using TPRS/CI. To get back to the point, if students “don’t seem to learn from TPRS”, it might be because classes meet for 90 mins or less a week.
    And we need to always give ourselves permission to rely more heavily on reading CI plus spin-offs when necessary.
    Does this not imply an adequate (and THAT needs defining) library of appropriate (interesting, colour-coded-by-level) reading materials? I embarked on TPRS naively, without considering this need. It’s a major oversight. E.g., 7 of my classes (yes! I’m trying TPRS with all of them! What a nut!) meet just once a week. Given the above, I’m unlikely to make much of an impact (i.e. noticeably improve students’ proficiency) unless I can expand the classroom 90-min. CI with reading out of class (yeah, I know, homework is THE GREAT EVIL, but face facts: 90-mins a week of CI is not enough. Susie said so. You might as well forget it, unless you’re supplementing with reading/listening or both).
    At the Shimabara, Japan, workshop, we were lucky to have in attendance some folks who were familiar with Extensive Reading, and some were members of Extensive Reading Study Groups. Many of these “ER” folks are already familiar and supportive of the idea of FRV and of fluency. They are, I suggest, natural TPRS/CI allies. Check them out. A British EFL colleague has told me that ER is not that well known in EFL circles in the States (compared to UK and Europe, and -thanks to Rob Waring – in Japan), so here’s a coupla links:
    Rob Waring’s Extensive Reading pages –
    The Edinburgh University Extensive Reading Project –

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