Silly Putty

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31 thoughts on “Silly Putty”

  1. Any CI activity can be molded to fit the 3-step sequence and it is that sequence that is so powerful (greater than the sum of its steps).

    Similarly, I started with TPRS curriculums, moved away from them, and now find myself moving back. I’m starting to see the importance of a curriculum that has built in the recycling of the language and in which each lesson builds on the previous. Otherwise, my 2-week cycles can sometimes have less overlap of vocabulary and structures than is necessary.

    Especially for my youngest grades, I’m thinking I need to go back to the basics, which for me means some TPR and Extended TPR. I need short, action-oriented scripts that naturally emerge from the TPR. I’m thinking that storyTELLING may be preferred to storyASKING in the younger grades. And I need a careful sequence to ensure I’m recycling the language. I need to get back Carol Gaab’s copy of Cuentame Grades 4-6. . .

    1. StoryTELLING for younger kids… after my experience today with grade 4, I think I may want to try that. I did it like a Mad Libs fill-in, and then one actor and 2 props-finders role played the resulting 4-sentence vignette. They couldn’t quite handle getting to offer ideas, and argued with each other more than I’d like. But also, they didn’t listen and watch the final vignettes quite as well as I had hoped. But some great actors and props-finders though. I think taking out the step of trying to get them to offer ideas without arguing/talking over might have been just as good for them — just create full scenes and let them act to them.

    2. It was like pulling teeth in the elementary grades this week.

      That’s when I start to wonder. Are they too young for TPRS? Is 1 hour/week too little time? Am I not strict enough? Is the dragon story too silly? or too lame? Are my target structures too long? Is it too repetitive? or not enough? Do I speak too fast? My voice is boring? Maybe the weather? The full moon? They don’t listen, don’t read, don’t write and don’t speak ! Have they retained anything at all???

      I must get back to what seems to be the best use of time.

      5 minutes (date-weather-breakfast/lunch-fashion)
      +5 minutes establishing meaning/reviewing/ PQA
      + 5 minutes TPR/brain break (standing up)
      + 10 minutes Story (Asking on a good day/ or StoryTelling)
      + 5 minutes TCI activity.

      Good thing Blaine Ray says: Lousy TPRS is still much better than anything else out there.

      And tomorrow is another day.

      1. So Catharina your classes with them are 25 minutes long? I love the schedule you describe because 5 minute segments with really little kids sounds like the exact right thing to do.

        I will publish your schedule as an article and categorize it under “Elementary” for those who might be looking for an elementary schedule that works. Let me know if that is o.k. first.

        Look, I need to say this – I have always wondered if TPRS can even be effective at those ages due to how low their level of sustained concentration is, just because they are so young.

        I would much rather work with bored teenagers, who at least have an attention span, than really young ones who cannot stay focused because they are so young.

        Really, I wonder how y’all elementary TPRS/CI teachers even do it. The stress has got to be unbelievable. Plus you have to be “on” with the smile all the time.

        1. I have REALLY come to respect elementary teachers after teaching grade 4. The constancy of body management is relentless. I don’t love that part and it’s a reason I’m happy to be moving to high school teaching.

          Everything you have written about, Catharina, shows masterful understanding of teaching that age range while maintaining principles of acquisition. I have really relied on your insights and they’ve proven very helpful.

        2. Is TPRS the right approach in elementary or not? IDK ? But what else is there?

          Someone recently asked on the listserv what it’s like teaching TPRS to the very young. I don’t ever post there, but my response would have been the exact opposite to what I read. Hmm? Some of what is suggested at the national conference and on the listserv I’d be cautious with. Funny, silly stories or games work well with a group of quiet kids, and not at all with hyper boys who will take funny to a whole other level. In elementary it is an ongoing struggle to find the right balance with keeping the kids engaged without going over board. The whole point is to get them to listen.

          I’ve been teaching kids French for 8 years, mostly nonsense for 6 of them. It did not come easy to me, 3 steps forward, 5 backwards. One major challenge was/is the lack of materials, and good training. Every year by March, I swear I’ll never teach little kids again. This and that happens, and I get roped into another year. Unlike Upper School I don’t have to cover any given material or follow a curriculum, no grades, kids and parents never complain, no homework or tests, zero accountability. I can play around with 3 ring circus or Reader’s theater and totally flop. No one cares. And little kids little problems. It’s still pretty straightforward when it comes to discipline.

          What I get tired of is the amount of work. If I don’t have a plan, the kids come up with one… Most days the 50%50% rule seems closer to 90%10%. Teaching freestyle à la Leslie Davison, takes years of hard work. Even Jason F. showed up in Breckenridge with a truck full of props, and puppets. The notion of keeping it simple takes on another dimension in elementary. You have to be quick on your feet, and cannot fall back on free writing, free reading, and dictée. You would not want to know how many times I’ve played Jacadi (Simon says) this year.

          I hear of 3rd graders reading 2 novels per year, beginner 4th graders writing 300 word essays in September and 6 year olds retelling stories after 6 short weeks. All kids taught with TCI. Proof that it works beautifully even with young kids if taught by a skilled teacher.
          I am not in that league yet.

          I rely on Eric and Diane N. Their input is invaluable. Both excellent teachers.
          I bet if Eric wasn’t living on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard, we’d lose him to Colorado ?

          1. Dude, I totally look to you Catharina to show me the way! I am great with kids 5th grade and up, but before that. . . it depends so much on the batch of kids. Depends on how well they will listen. My current 3rd graders are angels and we’re further ahead than one particular class with many hyper 4th grade boys. Sometimes it feels like I spend most of the time reminding them of rules and lecturing. The kids can’t handle the fun stuff (they get out of hand) and they don’t have the attention for the more sedentary CI activities. Granted, it is agreed that this particular class is the most difficult in the school. The school year is almost over and I still haven’t figured it out. Whoever thinks that younger means faster acquisition should try to teach FL to younger grades.

            Storyasking with choral responses definitely didn’t work. TPR sometimes works, but there is a lack of body control. MovieTalk gets decent discipline and is for that reason easier on me. I’ve started storytelling with target structures that are all very concrete, action-oriented. That way, the actors listen and act out the story. I can repeat the same story over and over with different actors. The kids all want their turn. I plan to film and show them their video. A little L&D around student artwork, a la Charlotte’s Zoo PQA is a good filler activity. My goal for next year is to get some traditional kids songs that we can sing and TPR. I definitely think that the important element of Catharina’s elementary schedule is short, varied activities.

            With only 1 hour a week (and less given the time burned at both ends), my ultimate goal is to get them used to the format of class, excited about FL, and maybe, just maybe get them to acquire some high-frequency verbs and comprehend the function words.

            I got a long way to go before I can say I’m in that league you mention. Wow! To me, that league sounds like a lie.

            I wish I could teach in such a TCI-friendly region as Denver. At the same time, I like the challenge to be the spark of change in a grammar-oriented district.

          2. …you have to be quick on your feet, and cannot fall back on free writing, free reading, and dictée….

            This makes me see how you are being asked to create a compelling auditory environment all the time in your instruction. I couldn’t do that. In high school the level of boredom that exists naturally in the building in general flows into our classrooms from the hallways as the kids enter the room, and so we don’t have to be so “up” all the time, but this is not true of the really young ones, who haven’t given up on the idea of having fun quite yet in their lives, and so you really have to be “up” all the time.

            This puts an unbelievable burden on you. I suggest that those who do have success with really young kids write a book immediately, this week, to tell how they do it. The fact that such a book doesn’t exist is telling. Don’t Erik and Diane teach kids who are older than you, Catharina? Aren’t we talking about two different levels? What if you just did quit? Certainly, you can teach older kids with all the perks of left brain based bail outs. You could do a lot more reading with older kids.

            Are these such crazy questions to ask? Is it wrong to suggest that you quit? You are the first person I have heard who uses comprehensible input with really young kids say such honest things. There is so much bullshit to cut through all the time with this kind of instruction.

            What you have said above, Catharina, seems very important to me, because it is newly said. What is really going on? Do you need to get out of the younger kids TPRS/CI game? I think so. Not because you can’t do it, but because it can’t be done, not with the time you have, and because it is too much of a pain in the ass.

          3. I wish I knew the answer Ben and Eric to whether it’s worth the time or not?

            Through my enthusiasm and dedication, I’ve sold the program too well to parents, kids and administrators. They won’t let me go! HaHa.I can hear the kids call out my name “Madame! Madame!” from a mile away. “Hé Madame! I’m going to Paris this summer!” Air France owes me a free trip by now. At the very least my students love French.

            I am committed to one more year, maybe while I get a teaching degree to move on to public school?

            Either way, it beats being home dusting, and matching socks.
            Now that’s hard!

            It’s all been good. TPRS has given me such joy, not to mention this amazing PLC. And Ben’s voice, guiding us all along. Wish writing came easier to me! Ugh.

          4. “At the very least my students love French.”

            If this were all that took place because of what you mean to these kids (which I doubt is all that takes place), then I would say your effort is not in vain. It’s hard, and kids have a hard time in English doing some of the things we’re asking them to do.

            Just today I was with a group of fifth graders, and I asked them a “Why?” question, along with the gesture for the word. They answered “si” and “no”. I asked them what “why?” means, and they answered correctly in English. Then I asked again. Same response. They just don’t get it, even in English. Which probably begs the question why the heck I was trying to ask Why questions! But it is certainly not isolated to Why questions either. It IS hard… respect to those who do it all the time (I’m not one of them).

          5. It is not a coincidence that I am moving from teaching grades 4-8 for high school. Calmer sounds very good to me. Longer attention spans and less body management sounds very good, too.

            “you really have to be “up” all the time” This is totally true! Grade 4 is another thing at my school… it’s an exploratory year with 8 weeks in each language offered grade 5-8. The kids then choose one for those grades. So not only are they comparing languages, they’re comparing teachers and apparent level of “Fun” in class. 9-year-olds are making decisions about the language they are likely to continue learning through some time in high school, and they’re basing them on 9-year-old values.

            This said, I do find it possible to teach even that class with a lot of CI principles. But it’s CI way light, and there’s a lot more English in use in class. There’s not so much time to norm the class so I make it work well enough. Mostly I realize now that the grade 4 needs to have enough real Chinese in it that they feel they know a lot, and yet fun and light enough that they don’t feel burdened. If I had a mandatory grade 4 program that continued, it’d be quite different.

          6. Let me say that better — I believe enjoying class is right for every age! But I feel that much of successfully teaching that quarter-long exploratory course is just about connecting with the kids and giving them a positive feel about Chinese language and culture. Whatever accomplishes that wins. I have colleagues with major art projects and super fun games, so I have to make what I can do feel as cool and fun as those.

          7. Yes Diane N. and Eric teach 3rd grade and above, whereas my age group is 3rd grade and below.

            There are many similarities though when teaching early language learners, so I adapt Diane and Eric’s ideas to fit my age groups. I skip reading for the most part, and writing. 4 year olds can TPR, point to or draw what I say, translate while catching a ball, follow directions, tell me the meaning in French of about 50 words etc Then again they cannot connect the language into sentences like an older student would be able to do. Retell with my age group rises the affective filter, and looks more like forced output, but for a few fast processors.

          8. Yeah, Catharina teaches younger kids than I do.

            The younger kids would need more instruction time to acquire and yet younger grades usually have less time than older kids. Given that situation, I can definitely catch up on what has been acquired once the kids are older.

            But Catharina makes a good point. The younger kids do love this approach and FL is exciting. We also get positive comments from parents of younger kids. This is the difference between a FLEX program (goal of motivating and introducing to the language/culture) and a FLES program (goal of learning/acquisition).

            Show me a how-to TCI book for elementary-age children and I would buy it immediately.

      2. Robert Harrell

        The same problem has hit my high school classes. We start later than everyone else, so the problems that the PLC was talking about last month are now hitting us: tired of school but still have five weeks to go; just tired; too much testing (AP, CST for juniors, CAHSEE); the blahs. In addition, it has been really hot this week with temperatures in the high nineties to over 100. Today’s baseball game was canceled because of the heat; on Tuesday I ended one class early because I decided not to prolong things unnecessarily or start something new. When I told the class to relax because it was hot, I heard one student mutter under his breath, “Finally, a teacher who understands.”

        I have been very lax this year about giving end-of-class quizzes; suddenly students are getting them most days. It does help them focus. I told my first period that either they start participating or I will simply hand out worksheets because they aren’t doing their 50%.

        Of course, it doesn’t help that I am feeling much the same and much too tired to try to carry a full class.

        1. When the blahs hit we must react. We can do this by fighting them, pretending they don’t exist, or embrace them a bit ourselves, giving more time doing nothing, letting the kids visit, maybe showing a nice film from the country whose language we teach, and generally kicking back.

          Most of us think we have to go bang on until the end of the year. And what if someone walked in? First, we don’t have to go bang on until the end of the year, and second, any important observations will have already been done prior to now.

          In my school we are two weeks from finals. I constantly hear a voice in my head urging me to crack the whip, as I did over decades when I was younger and thought it was all about me.

          I must have grown. These days I am doing some blah low level L and D with the kids, with a very low key quality to it. We often start our classes later, after some nice visiting in English. They help me with my Spanish. We tell jokes. It’s May.

          If we want to crack the whip now, we’re just stupid.

          1. Jeffery Brickler

            Dude! This is an awesome point! I was getting so irritated with one of my classes because of guilt! Gotta stop that guilt thing. It doesn’t help that this class has some really negative individuals who made my life hell last year. I am trying to learn to let go of these awful feelings toward these kids who are pigs.

          2. For those a bit shocked by Jeff’s use of the term pigs, it is from me, perhaps not the best choice of words, but I did have, three years ago, two kids who were beyond rude, known to the school and counselors and teachers as impossible to teach. One is in prison now. When the principal found out about what they were doing in my class, in November, after many emails to her APs, she got them out that day. So such kids, the really really rare ones, I wrote about in a category called Pigs. I did it for my mental health, and we had a lot of discussion about how to react to such kids that year. It is an important topic. I apologize to all pigs for my poor choice of words.

          3. Jeffery Brickler

            Yes, thank you Ben. I should have chosen better words, I’m sorry. I’m continuing to work on healing myself and my reactions and responses as I learn to become a more empathic teacher. Thanks for the reminder.

          4. No Jeff it was me who first used the term. And only about two students in a ten year period. I’m not going to apologize too much, though, because those rare students really take a toll. The real bad guys are the admins who let it happen.

          5. Good thing you apologized, Ben. The pigs in Animal Farm may have had a class action suit.

          6. Another thing I’ve decided to do with my oldest two classes (7th and 8th) to deal with the 7th graders’ excitement and energy, and the 8th graders’ general inattention and passivity, is to assign them projects. I’ll be a resource person for them, and there are clear rubrics for the project including one from I think Jim Tripp on effective use of work time. The 7th graders are really throwing themselves into group work well; the 8th graders will have much more clearly described, precise independent research-based projects to do.

            I decided I didn’t want to attempt a whole week of exam review. The 8th are getting really hard to manage. I gave them the choice of learning a Chinese poem or learning about a Chinese historical figure. Every girl picked poem – every boy picked person. So they’ll read a bit, get together a short description of one or the other, and then share what they learned. Not CI, but a project left from my previous years, and a nice way to check off “Culture” clearly enough for everyone else to understand. Then 2 days to talk over exam expectations and review. That will have elements of their required engagement – probably quick quizzes and dictation more than once during class!

  2. For story-asking with my little students, I designate an “expert” à la Ben’s skill #36 (TPRS in a year! page 71).
    Last week Benji was our dragon expert. He got to decide on the name, and how many teeth the dragon had lost. As Ben suggests, I try to “involve kids who are normally aware of everything going on but are just quiet people”. Works beautifully.

    In my case it isn’t exactly story-asking, but rather letting students chose names, places, details that make it look like their contributing, and have ownership.

  3. I really want to return to the Silly Putty point. When I first wrote that article in 2007, I had been pushing so hard to expand the TPRS Three Steps. I think it would be very good for all of us to realize how we should not stray too far from them, to stay on them and not go out of bounds. Stories, Movie Talk, Look and Discuss, many of the ways we deliver comprehensible input, including PQA if you think about it, are just various ways of delivering one target structure at a time. In stories, the action is stretched out over time, in Movie Talk, time is not stretched out at all, as we really focus on a static image. The same is true for Look and Discuss. But it’s all the same. Even in PQA, if the PQA is to be successful, we keep saying one thing over and over about whatever is being discussed until the students feel comfortable with that one structure, and only then can we go on to another structure and so on. It seems very important to me, for some reason, to say this again and again. I think that the importance of staying with and repeating the same structure over and over during class is something that is not remembered by everyone trying to do CI, with disastrous results. We establish meaning on a structure, we get reps on that structure, we apply it into a larger context (a story, Movie Talk, Look and Discuss, PQA, etc.) and then we read. That’s our own formula for Coke.

    1. “We establish meaning on a structure, we get reps on that structure, we apply it into a larger context (a story, Movie Talk, Look and Discuss, PQA, etc.) and then we read. That’s our own formula for Coke.” This is a great explanation of the steps – may I use it?

      I’ve been thinking about how good CI (ex, TPRS) is different from other kinds of “CI.” I think that staying with just a small amount of new stuff, and using that in every sentence or prompt, is the difference between CI/TPRS and “CI” as defined by, for example, Helena Curtain’s model of language instruction (or immersion). We stay on just a limited new piece of language and use it again and again. Having seen Helena give examples of teaching what she thought was CI, her only point was that we sort-of understood at that moment, and certainly not that we heard only limited vocabulary with total comprehension. (And then she pressed us to pronounce words right away. I don’t want to get started.)

      Back here at school, I was really happy to hear a 5th grader who understood how staying on just one word or phrase works to make it stick with them. As I was talking about leaving for Denver (and that class really was sad about it, it was very touching…), one of the boys asked if the next teacher would “keep using one thing again and again, because that really works!” A 7th grader who used to want big output projects had the advice that the next teacher should NOT use a textbook. I was so happy to hear them say these things. They get it.

      1. I totally agree that it is our formula for Coke!
        The better I feel I get at something, the more I want to mess around with it. I shouldn’t do that. I can think of only one good reason for stretching the silly putty: add some novelty. But then, get back to that formula. I’m still not sure if the ORDER of the steps is important to the formula, e.g. how important is it that we read last and not 2nd, PQA in the beginning and not as the last step.
        What sets TPRS apart from other TCI methods (TPR, MT, L&D, SSR) is that we get concentrated reps (limit target structures and maximize reps over a short period of time).

  4. I’ll bet we are not alone, Eric, in our tinkering. It may be that the only way to have found this out, though, is to have tested it in the way we did. I have so much more respect for the Three Steps now than I ever did. But I’m not sure it is something that can be told to someone new – they have to test it themselves.

    I agree that Steps 2 and 3 can be reversed. Thus, we watch and help a story spin out from the reading of a novel, if it happens. I think that the normal order will be most powerful, however. Spinning off an existing text into a story is less compact. Whenever I do ROA with a class after doing a story (Step 3 the way I do it using ROA), with some minor embedding in the reading, I sense the power of the thing as the kids read loudly in full translation mode without using their conscious minds to stamp down and perforate what they are reading by thinking about it too much. (Because in reading, too, we want their minds focused on the message and not the words, like a movie, as Susie says.)

    What you said here is pretty much the entire thing about what we do:

    …what sets TPRS apart from other TCI methods (TPR, MT, L&D, SSR) is that we get concentrated reps (limit target structures and maximize reps over a short period of time)….

    1. I wanted to share these tidbits I read recently. They speak to our approach (slow, listening harder than reading, repetitions, comprehension depends on knowing 95-98% of the content) and I think these research findings are underlying the success of TPRS.

      “Teachers and students should be aware that a student’s fluent reading ability is unlikely to be the same as their fluent listening ability. Research suggests that for many students, their listening vocabulary size and access speed is much lower than their reading vocabulary (research suggests a half or a quarter of the size) and so they may need to listen to books one or two levels lower than their reading ability” (ER Foundation’s “Guide to Extensive Reading.” p. 12)

      “However, it is clear that learners need to meet words numerous times for them to be retained for the long term. Waring and Takaki (2003), for example, suggest that an average word be met more than 25 times for it to be known well enough to understand it and not slow down comprehension when reading. Other research also showed that some words met over a hundred times are still not known. An important point here is that most of the above uptake rates are based on measurements taken immediately after reading or learning. However, when the subjects are given delay tests some weeks or months later, their retention drops precipitously, suggesting the vocabulary knowledge learned while reading was fragile. These data together suggest that learners must read (and listen to) massive amounts of text to not only retain what they know, but to develop it too.”

      (Waring, R. (2011). Extensive Reading in English Teaching. In Widodo, H. & A. Cirocki (Eds.) Innovation and Creativity in ELT methodology. Nova Publishers: New York)

      “Laufer (1989) demonstrated that to effectively guess new words from context there has to be at least 95% coverage. Coady and Nation (1988) suggest a figure of one word in fifty or 98% coverage.”
      (Waring, R. (1995). Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, linguistic context and vocabulary task design. Summary of a paper presented at The British Council Conference in St Andrews Scotland.)

      1. Robert Harrell

        Greg Thomson is formerly with SIL (part of Wycliffe Bible Translators) and currently a professor at Hamline University. He advocates a method of language acquisition that fits very well with TCI/TPRS even though it is intended for the “independent” language learner, i.e. the person who is self directed and acquiring a language outside the classroom. In an article from January 2007 he describes the “Growing Participator Approach”.

        The approach has three aspects (sociolinguistic, cognitive, and spiritual) and six phases. His phases include:

        The Here-and-Now Phase: approximately 100 hours, beginning with listening and responding non-verbally, followed by slowly increasing verbal interaction. At the end of this time the language learner has a recognition vocabulary of about 800 items and an incipient relationship with the “nurturer” (“teacher”).

        The Story-Building Phase: approximately 150 hours, during which the learner becomes increasingly verbal through single-picture stories [OWI?], then wordless picture books [StoryAsking] for which the nurturer largely creates the story, ending with mutually created autobiographical picture stories. The learner moves from understanding individual words and short phrases to understanding interconnected sentences that form a story and increases in ability to speak in the target language.

        [N.B.: These two phases would essentially fill the first two years of a high school language program.]

        The Shared-Story Phase: approximately 250 hours [i.e. years three and four in high school], during which the learner hears detailed explanations of familiar daily actions, more complex narrations of familiar stories [e.g. fairy tales, Bible stories, “world” stories common to many cultures], and reminiscences of shared experiences [re-cycling stories from previous years?]; the learner increases ability to follow complex narrative and expository (explanatory) discourse as well as express himself more fully, finally engaging in genuine conversation.

        The Deep-Life Phase: approximately 500 hours [perhaps starting in the last semester of year four in high school], during which the learner interviews native speakers and engages in discussions with them; the emphasis is on gaining a wide and deep understanding of the culture through a wide and deep understanding of individual lives.

        The Native-to-Native Phase: approximately 500 hours, during which the learner participates in activities with multiple native speakers and gains understanding of native-to-native speech including register, technical vocabulary, etc.; by the end of this period (1,500+ hours of comprehensible exposure to the language) the learner may have a passive/recognition vocabulary of 10,000 items but a much smaller active vocabulary.

        The Self-Sustaining Growth Phase: ongoing; the learner eventually becomes accepted as “one of us” in the host community as he participates in the life of the community.

        [Obviously the later phases lie entirely outside the realm of what is possible in a high school program, but they give a picture of what continued language acquisition might look like. Here is the link to the article – ]

  5. My comment may fit here:

    On my end-of-the-year evaluation, kids have to list their favorite activity, least favorite, something about class they want to change, and something about themselves in class they want to change.

    Well, the results are mixed on MovieTalk & reading, some asking for more of it, some asking for less. But the one thing that many people listed as their favorite activity and which didn’t receive any negative reviews was the story making (step 2). I think this was the same trend I observed on these evaluations last year. I need to recommit to asking more stories. One reason I don’t ask more frequent stories has to do with the energy it requires – I need to get more sleep! I’m NOT a morning person. Who knows? Maybe if I did more of them, then not being as novel, then maybe they wouldn’t be the favored activity.

    As for MT, I can probably pause less and find more ways to use the image to personalize the discussion.

    As for Step 3 reading, I need to make it more compelling – more PQA, parallel stories, and acting it out. I’m thinking step 1 is a personalized story, step 2 is a class-created fictional character, and step 3 could be a celebrity.

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