The Research Piece

Reed Riggs is working in the area of research at the University of Hawaii and so I put him in touch with Eric and I like where the two of them might one day take the topic of CI research.

Eric explains:

Thanks for putting me in contact with Reed. We talked a bit today and I think we are on the same page. He’s sent me a lot of research to read. Wouldn’t it be nice if FL teachers had access to the research that university students have?!

Reed makes a good point. How researchers talk about SLA has evolved (e.g. Krashen’s distinction between learning and acquisition was always controversial and was never accepted by the majority of the SLA field – the terms we should use are implicit and explicit learning). There may be better ways to talk about and label what we do in TPRS, ways that are less controversial. I’ve said it before, and Reed also sees it, that we in TPRS actually do a lot more than teach with CI. His idea is that if we talked about what we do in ways that concord with current SLA researchers and if we are less dogmatic (less Krashen is right and everyone else is wrong – after all Krashen’s ideas are only hypotheses still open to continual testing – even the Natural Order is only a hypothesis and far from universally accepted), then we may get researcher interest in TPRS and attract more teachers to our movement.

I responded:

Perhaps you and Reed and others can push this ball up the hill on research, maybe even establishing a website for that discussion. Then we we can keep our discussion here on how to get better at CI. I want to keep the focus here almost entirely on ways to get better at classroom teaching using CI, and to include the research only to the extent that it can help us do that. Getting better at CI and helping each other maintain an even keel in what is now a storm remain the major goals I have here on this site.



26 thoughts on “The Research Piece”

  1. I’m happy to hear about this! I met Reed at ACTFL, and talking with him about CI, SLA research, and assessment, I kept thinking that Eric Herman & he should meet. Nice to hear that’s happened! Reed is also a Chinese teacher, and is working on good things related to developing reading skills and reading material in Chinese, too.

  2. Okay, I want in this conversation. Seriously, I think it’s great that Eric and Reed are communicating and thinking of ways to express the concordance between what we do and the research.

    Eric’s comment about finding better ways to talk about and label what we do is a good one. Whatever kerfuffle we may have caused on the ACTFL website is probably short lived and may prove ultimately counterproductive. (At the conference more than one person who didn’t post but are nonetheless strong TPRS practitioners told me that they were concerned about pushback in their personal settings from those discussions and the overall tone of the threads.)

    As I’ve continued doing my own reading – currently surveying the history of foreign language teaching methods in the US – I notice several things:

    1. It’s easy for whoever creates or espouses a new method(ology) / approach to imply or even believe that all of the preceding methods had nothing to offer. This generally is not the case; “even” Grammar Translation has some success if the ultimate goal is to be able to read a closed corpus of text in a language that no one uses for oral communication. (Some day I want to explore in my own thinking what that means for interpretation of those texts, but that is for another time.)

    2. Most teachers do not do much thinking, let alone deep thinking, about the implications and ramifications of research, principles, theories, etc. on what they do. From personal observation, most teachers at a workshop or conference are not looking for an in-depth discussion of how neuroscience and cognitive research inform classroom practices, for example; they want an activity, a strategy, a “practice” that they can take home and use with their classes the next day.

    3. It is easy to misunderstand one another because different people mean different things with the same word, and we do not always even mean the same thing ourselves (e.g. Haley and Austin use two different definitions of the word “authentic” in their book “Content-Based Second Language Teaching and Learning – and probably don’t even realize it and thus are probably not aware of any cognitive dissonance between their statement that “authentic resources” are “by native speakers for native speakers” and their assertion that second language learners can have “authentic communication” in the language classroom). They are by no means the only ones who do this, and TPRS/TCI supporters are often guilty of fuzzy definitions as well.

    4. It is easy to condemn a different method or approach based on what we have seen when what we have seen is really just a bad example of the method or approach. We need to distinguish between poor practice and poor approach. I know I would not want someone to pass judgment on the effectiveness of TPRS based on viewing some of my worst days.

    5. It is easy to condemn another method or approach based on our presuppositions and foundations without acknowledging that the goals of the two “schools” may not even be the same. For example, one critique of the Natural Approach was that “communicative interactions seem to be guided by the topic of conversation rathe than by the structures of the language.” But that was the whole point of the Natural Approach – be guided by what the students want to discuss in order to maintain interest, not by the “structures of the language” (i.e. grammar).

    6. It is easy to forget that we are all on a journey, and we are at different places on our journey. In a thread a few days ago, Laurie mentioned having watched me change and evolve. We need to support those who may not be just where we are, not alienate them.

    7. We lose sight of the fact that much of what we do is not new and that good teaching is good teaching, no matter who does it. I have heard Blaine say that what he did was basically re-package and re-arrange things that people have known about for years. Aspects of Gouin’s Series re-appear in Asher’s TPR; lowering the affective filter was a major part of Suggestopedia; underlying much of TCI is the Natural Approach, and it in turn incorporates elements of the Direct (“Berlitz”) Method.

    8. It is easy to alienate others by appearing – or even being – self-righteous in our position. We are especially susceptible to this when we feel attacked or when the arguments become heated. This goes hand in hand with #6. In the heat of the moment, our position becomes hardened, and we present ourselves as keepers of the Holy Grail of language teaching who hand down our pronouncements from on high. We condemn this in others but fail to see it in ourselves.

    9. We all tend to emphasize the facts and research that support our position and minimize those that do not. Furthermore, we interpret reality in terms of our philosophical framework and fit the facts as much as possible into what already exists. Sometimes Occam’s Razor doesn’t cut much.

    10. We decry in others things we do ourselves.

    Okay, some of those weren’t directly from my survey of the history of the methods of teaching foreign language in the US, but I got carried away.

    1. You know you’re in for a treat when you see that Robert has posted a response with numbered bullets! Robert, you’re in! The dialogue with Reed has only just started. What is great is that we haven’t read the same stuff, so we each have something to offer each other.

      I am skeptical that SLA research will ever, at least not for a long while, make much waves in the FL teaching practice. Teachers lack SLA knowledge and don’t seem particularly interested in it (maybe for good reasons). As Reed said, and I agree, it seems that TPRS teachers are much more informed in SLA, but most of us are knowledgeable of only one line of thinking, that of Krashen, one that has been very controversial.

      I would be interested to know how many FL teachers considered SLA theory first and decided on practice second. I didn’t. Meaning first. Form second. I wonder if I could have made sense of SLA or formed an opinion had I not seen different FL teaching practices first.

      An essential part of this will be about how to best market TPRS to teachers and to researchers. As TCI continues to evolve there will be SLA findings that can suggest tweaks to our methods.

      1. I agree Eric, in principle. However, in the reality of the classroom, I believe that the marriage between Krashen’s ideas and the Three Steps is a most happy alignment, the striking of a vein of the purest gold, that yields explosive results, and that further research will only minimally tweak. I don’t believe that research will lead the way forward – I think its all about the classroom now. Krashen has told me just that on multiple occasions – that all he did was the research and now we are the ones who have to give it life in our classrooms. And I would add that, for me, Krashen’s work has been more than enough, so I don’t need to be widely read in the research area to be very happy with my own work. That point touches on a few of the points Robert made above. Blaine’s gift to us is deceptively simple – he found what is in my opinion the best way to apply Krashen to our classrooms and until something better comes along his Three Steps are plenty sufficient to get us the fantastic results we are seeing now. Where you and Reed go with all this I hope does not draw you too far afield into an intellectual wasteland. And I’m sure Robert will be in on it to help us keep our focus, and in my opinion Jody should always be referred to before doing any big new project in this field – if she doesn’t approve it I would drop it immediately. Jody is the Dean of Students here. So I am encouraging you with the research piece but advising caution (where is it going to take you?) at the same time. Hope that didn’t piss you off. It’s just my opinion.

        1. You couldn’t piss me off 😉
          I think the classroom is way more important.
          I know that just because Krashen isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean that he isn’t right. But it means there is a lot of work if that is to ever change.
          We would hope that the more we read, the more research that is gathered, the more it only confirms what we’ve accepted.

          1. …we would hope that the more we read, the more research that is gathered, the more it only confirms what we’ve accepted….

            That’s why we have you, to filter it all out and feed us the best most important stuff so we can just teach.

    2. Very good points, Robert, and a bit convicting. But there’s always tomorrow. My being at ACTFL and meeting some Chinese scholars (I mean like people who’ve been at universities teaching Chinese for 20+ years) made me want to be part of shaping that conversation more (on Chinese specifically and language acquisition in general in our country). In fact, many of us out in classrooms with students who didn’t fully choose to take our classes means we have to hone the craft of teaching and we have great ideas. University people need to hear them.

      I’m on a bit of a “let’s change the world” feel with this right now, but I’m seeing if it’s going to be done, it needs to be done in a way those folks can comprehend, and with the dispositions you described, Robert.

      1. I don’t think there is anything more powerful for FL teaching change than a language teacher that can implement the method well AND talk about SLA in a simple and confident way.

        Diane, your new videos are going to “change the world” in no small way for sure, and the conversations that you have, undoubtedly in a respectful and calm way as you do, will surely do that.

        Thanks Robert for reminding us that we have room to improve as colleagues and proselytizers of this approach. I still think that one of the most important books that any teacher should read is Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I need to read it again. I learned about it from Blaine. The title is off-putting to me, but the content is important and universal.

        1. Hi Jim, thanks for the encouragement. I am keeping it in a file for days when I need a boost!

          I hope to make more videos in January. All of December is made bizarre by exams at this school! Now I know what you all were talking about with high school. 3 weeks made bizarre! But it was a good excuse just to work with language already introduced. They need the reps. We’ve done almost all reading-based stuff because their listening comp is excellent. I really want to get a better handle on the reading piece of acquiring Chinese.

          My school’s motto (?) is “Influence through Excellence.” Sounded kind of arrogant when I first read it, but when I understood better, it really resonated with me. The pursuit of excellence, not the assertion that one has already arrived, is intended.

    3. “poor practice and poor approach”

      I wanted to go back and find what Robert said earlier RE practice vs approach. Does anyone know where that was?

  3. I’m a little skeptical, too, that more research will in itself change things. The only thing that can do that is more and more teachers being honest with themselves. But perhaps more research does have the potential to bring that realization out of more and more people.

    1. I doubt that research alone will change things much. However, when practitioners understand and implement the research with success, they become transmitters of the research in a way that will change things. For me, it is important that I become one of those transmitters of the research and not just a practitioner because my district is otherwise likely to continue doing what they have always done in the past. Not everyone needs to be doing this, but everyone should be able to give good reasons for doing what they do. When you think about it, the establishment actually does us a favor by asking for the “proof” and research for our approach, because we become able to articulate it vis-a-vis those who do what they do because that’s what they’ve always done.

      One of the things that I see over and over again is how much the way we learned influences the way we teach, even for those of us who have embraced the sea change. The real changes will come when the students we teach become teachers – and look at it this way: if we are teaching in a way that excites and encourages students, more of our students are likely to become teachers than students of those whose classes are humdrum. Eventually teachers who learned through a comprehensible input approach will outnumber those who learned in a grammar approach.

      1. I really like this idea of our students who are taught using CI one day becoming teachers who teach using CI because that is how they were taught.

        1. I do too! And this gives me great hope. For every teacher that teaches with TPRS, we exponentially increase the number of TPRS teachers. :o) Don’t worry! More of our kids will become teachers than theirs!!! We will tip the scales!!

          with love,

  4. My experince after 2 1/2 years of workshops:

    — only effective way to do this is to demo in a foreign language, with movietalk, l&d and reading
    — better still, bring some kids from your class and have them show ppl what they can do
    — exemplars — esp of beginner work– impresses

    If you do all fo these, 1 person in 5 will start TPRS. Also bizarrely I noticed that in BC every TPRS teacher I know is not a parent. Go figure.

      1. Opposite for me — no kids means I have had time to explore these ideas more. The clincher for me was experiencing the summer of 2012 as a language student in China, where I grew frustrated with the writing assignments (“use this totally new, academic-feeling, formal written structure correctly after reading it in print twice and getting a grammar explanation of it!”). I did not do well with those. It convinced me my path to fluency would not come through my production and correction, but through massive quantities of input. Made me entirely stop asking my students to produce what they did not feel ready to do on their own.

        1. This reminds me of what Blaine Ray kept doing at the workshop I attended with him: he kept saying “OK how does it *feel* to do ____?” He was VERY keen on us being tuned in to how learning (or later practising teaching TPRS) felt because if it feels “off” or forced then we are not in optimised learning mode.

          I’ll always remember the feeling of watcing a Japanese teacher circle and suddenly– cos she intro’d new vocab without explaining its meaning– I was lost. That sinking feeling. More of us would do well to go and regularly try to learn a new language to remind ourselves how hard it is!

          1. And Carly what Chris says above is another reminder to all of us of the degree of change needed in us. If the kids get what Chris calls that “sinking feeling” (so apt!) then all our work is for nothing. If we go too fast and try to teach too much we are going to lose them. This is so simple and yet so hard to grasp. Ten minutes of slow personalized and circled CI is plenty. Reading follows, as James pointed out. Then some more listening CI maybe. All slow and low key. Blainish. I think the teaching profession is the craziest of all for this one reason – we don’t feel as if it is o.k. to just go slow and hang out with the kids. What’s up with that?

  5. I’ve also heard to try to avoid teaching the same age group as one -deals- with at home.
    Not specific to TCI. Just a general thought.

  6. I’m going to jump in briefly here before writing anything longer. My interest is not to change influence TPRS/TCI teachers. TPRS/TCI is already very developed in magical and enchanting ways. So my goal here is not to be prescriptive to TPRS/TCI teachers, but, rather, descriptive of TPRS/TCI practices. I want to call the world’s attention to what TPRS/TCI teachers are already doing so well for their students. I want SLA researchers to come see all of this, to impact the world’s scientific understandings of how people acquire languages. It is the job of a scientist to minimize their impact on the participants they observe. As such, I completely agree with Ben’s view here, that the discussions here should be selectively practical and helpful to these teachers who subscribe here.

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