The Training Wheels Method – Teaching Proficiency through Training Wheels (TPTW)

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25 thoughts on “The Training Wheels Method – Teaching Proficiency through Training Wheels (TPTW)”

  1. Ben,

    I like your ramble…but I am not sure I understand it completely.

    1) Can you describe a little bit more about what you are referring to when you say “lesson plan?”

    You also said…

    “Most people say, “Oh, new people need training wheels!” and they get high on that. My position is that we need to leave the training wheels much earlier and just do stories, even just the super mini stories described in my last book.”

    2) What are you referring to when you are saying “training wheels?”

    3) Who are the people saying this about training wheels?

    4) What are you referring to when you say “just do stories?”

  2. How do you define a “lesson plan”?
    You like steps and picking certain activities. How is that different from a “lesson plan”?

    What I hear Ben talking about is “organic” language instruction – when we let student interests guide the content of the stories and discussion. Students have to have a way to output this content. Organic instruction has different teacher-student roles during interaction (more symmetrical – teacher as another participant, as learner, and facilitator). This naturally results from our storytelling collaboration. The learners are cooperative collaborators.

    But a more symmetrical relationship is not the traditional teacher-student dynamic, which has long been the challenge to Communicative Approaches. It also may conflict with the principle of maximizing CI, since that requires the teacher be the main source of CI and do most of the talking. But organic instruction requires more direction (output) from the students and a more equal power distribution.

    The roles do not have to be fixed. They can change as learners develop more proficiency.

    “Organic” will only be more successful in terms of language acquisition to the extent that the input is more compelling and comprehensible – the extent to which it satisfies the principle of compelling and comprehensible input maximizing acquisition. Cooperative and collaborative (more organic) instruction is likely more compelling than when the teacher predetermines content and direction.

    Like me, Ben shares a strong form of communication as a principle – communication is meaning-based and in classrooms driven by an information exchange (getting details for stories and personal info about students), rather than a weaker form which makes communication subservient to grammatical or vocabulary objectives. But you can still predetermine the theme (e.g. the video clip, picture, story problem), predetermine the process (steps), and predetermine the activity (collaborative storytelling) and be teaching with a strong version of communication. Newbies to this way of teaching may very well need that “structure.”

    It’s tricky – Can a CI principle which makes the teacher the main source and model of input, fit with an organic form of communication, which requires more student output and more symmetrical teacher-student roles? I feel this friction in every class.

    I really hope Ben gets to consult and train in as many schools as possible!

  3. Ben you also said, “I believe that we need to keep TPRS pure.”

    I find this statement problematic. TPRS, as described through Sealy and Ray…”is always changing and trying to figure out how to do things better.”

    How can we grow, evolve, and advance without changing? Also, the thought that came to mind was…which version of TPRS are you wanting to keep “pure?’

    Just some thoughts as you are on this journey.

    1. When I read that, I thought Ben was saying that he wants to keep it student-centered and focused on authentic communication, not using scripted and canned lesson plans. Many of my colleagues are really into the lesson planny TPRS, which is proliferating these days. While I am really jazzed that they (and many others across the planet) are discovering a different way to teach, I want to help them shed the training wheels of using curricula they purchase from others and find the “pure” joy and happiness (and hard work and emotional rawness, too) of working with the kids as they show up in our classes THAT DAY.

      1. Yes. Tina is on to something. This spontaneity keeps kids rushing to your class right when they leave some English or science class. What are we going to do? Most of my kids are on the edge of their seats. In traditional classes students know the exact routines AND activities and thus are not engaged.

    2. I remember Blaine using the term “TPRS-pure.” That was his goal. I understood him to mean that there was realm in which TPRS and TPRS without any other assistance could get the job done.

    3. The core is pure. The core is when the students are focused only on meaning most of the time, regardless of the activity. The outward manifestation of that core will present in different ways in different activities in each teacher’s classroom. When the core of focus on meaning because the activities chosen for that class keep them so, then the gains from that classroom will be stupendous. When the kids are not focused on meaning so much, and yet the teacher calls it TPRS, the gains go down. It is the duty of each teacher who makes the strong claim to be “TPRS teacher” to honor Blaine’s vision, not to mention all the work Krashen did to allow Blaine to invent storytelling, to the extent that they can. They should take care to not twist or water down what Blaine invented in the story/reading model.

  4. This is nothing new. Robert Harrell said it best about pre-packaged CI lesson plans (I think on FB actually). None of the resources out there are BEST on their own. Classrooms do NOT work with a one size fits all plan.

    I think that combining various CI resources to fit the personality of the teacher and the ever changing needs of the students in our classrooms is the guiding light on this. If you ONLY use Carol Gaab’s stuff, or only use Blaine’s stuff, or only follow the lesson plans of Martina Bex or whomever…the service to the learners is very limited.

    I think teachers GOT it all WRONG when they do this.

    (sorry I got fired up on this).


  5. The problem with free-form TPRS is that almost inevitably we end up dumping too much vocab on the kids. Terry Waltz has pointed out that the art of TPRS is using very limited vocab and making it interesting–personalised– to the kids. With skill, we can take a simple sentence such as “____ wanted a ___” and get a fair amount of mileage out of it.

    A sequence of stories– e.g. Blaine’s LICT– helps restrict the vocab load. After some years of this I have learned that less is way, way more. We need to introduce enough new stuff per story to keep the kids moving, but not so much that they get overloaded, and we have to keep recycling everything constantly esp the super 7 or super 16 or whatever.

    My experience with TPRS I think broadly mirrors others’: while we start with a curriculum/story sequence etc, most ppl end up customising away as they figure out what works. I for one am in favour of training wheels. People do need a solid start– an “instruction manual” as it were– because TPRS is too loosey-goosey for many people (most teachers are control freaks to some extent) and structure at least initially feels comfortable.

    1. “The problem with free-form TPRS is that almost inevitably we end up dumping too much vocab on the kids.”

      I disagree. Non-targeted does not have to mean input overload. Requires lots of skill, sure. Maybe learning the skill of targeting is a prerequisite. . .

      1. I agree as well. I am able to go for period after period with just words that they know deep-down, because the words I have selected to use, write, point to, and use again are very, very athletic words. They get the job done. I think that it IS possible to go free-range AND stay in bounds. It takes skills and discipline and not pursuing the shiny awesome things kids say sometimes because you know it will require a million new words and will cause your blackboard at the end of class to look like Brer Rabbit’s Briar Patch, a blackberry thicket of words that “came up” in the discussion/story.

      2. If we are mindful when we speak to them in a non-targeted way, we will stay in bounds. If we are mindful when we speak to them in a targeted way, we will stay in bounds. It’s not whether we are targeting or not targeting. It’s whether we are mindful.

        1. It’s starting to sink it. I think?

          With little kids we might actually be doing what you are suggesting, Ben.
          It ends up looking more like small talking, doing funny little stories, and playing rather than deliberately planning to target certain structures at all cost. The language builds up naturally, a few words at a time -whatever those might be- while staying in bounds trying not -to dump too much vocab on the kids at once- like Chris says. It’s not contrived, or forced. We can interact in a language the kids barely know, thanks to the many skills you describe so well in your Books.

          When it comes to planning, Laurie suggested -we need something to talk about- . It’s always in the back of mind when thinking of my lessons. What could we talk about? What could we do? Takes me 5 minutes to “plan”.

          Laurie is presenting tomorrow, Saturday Feb. 19 in Philadelphia. How great is that!

    2. I think the skill of targeting is prerequisite. (Are things different for teachers who learned w/TPRS?) When one’s history has been download 30-60 vocab words per month targeting is essential.
      But it is not just targets. There is the whole big question of what do I teach and how? And how do I think in this new way? We have to learn what to say and what to expect the students to say. There are entirely new roles with the students. We have to mentally deal with the isuse of “Can I really get that simple with the students and keep them? Blaine’s “curriculum” is great because it teaches us how to do stories…how to follow endless ways of setting up the problem, attempting to solve it, and the result of solving or not.

      “A story may start with anything and go anywhere.” G.K. Chesterton, 1925

    3. I certainly can relate to the difficulty of dumping too much vocab on students trying to be more spontaneous. It seems to me to be a really high level skill to be able to let it “free flow” and keep things in bounds.

      1. Terry Walz’ “super seven” verbs in all tenses, sheltered vocab but unsheltered grammar, can really get a lot of mileage. I think you sometimes have to actually just let some butterflies flitter on by…sometimes talking about Makayla’s recent scuba diving gear mishap in Cancun is really interesting and it is hard not to want to talk about it in detail, but you know it’s going to take you down Non-High-Frequency-Writing-Tons-of-Words-on-the-Board Lane. I try to steer the conversation to something that will let us stay in bounds, like when did you arrive in Cancun? What hotel did you sleep at? Did you like the food? Things that let me keep piling on the high-frequency words we all can rely on because they have been our workhorses all year long. Spontaneous to me means that we never know what topic the conversation will wander towards, NOT what VOCAB we will use.

  6. I have been reflecting on my own experience regarding T/CI pedagogy-targeted/non-targeted; ‘lesson prep & plans;’ and teacher training, which are all very interconnected.
    I had been feeling the need for a different way for some years before coming upon T/CI. I was ready, and experienced in the classroom on many other levels – I knew the population well, I had experience with time and class management, I had been given lots of latitude to experiment within the ‘old’ methods at my school, where I was a respected veteran (and lone wolf).
    My history, of course, served me well, as perhaps a newbie to teaching, or to a new grade or building or administration would experience more resistance, struggle or criticism.
    That first real workshop where Carol G came and demo’d for us (she was in-district for 3 DAYS!!!) was awesome and earth moving, but I still didn’t ‘get it’ entirely yet. For the brief time allotted to practicing the circling skill within a story, I was like a deer in headlights. It wasn’t ’til I observed my dear friend and colleague, Carla, demonstrate a mini-lesson in French that I began to see that I, too, could ‘just do it.’ I don’t know if I was over-stimulated by all the rationale and breadth of info, or whether I just needed to reflect and digest in my own way…but that training was great for my thinking brain, but not my ‘on my feet teaching’ brain (yet).
    In retrospect I’m not sure I’d do it differently now, because I did go back to my building and try my hand at a story within a few weeks. I gathered some compelling props and threw together a classic 3-locale story about a hungry dinosaur who wanted… sushi. It was 1st grade (they eat out of a storyteller’s hands!) and the gold lamé T-Rex puppet with the bright red mouth was a hit. I could see their excitement and delight as the dino visited their favorite local restaurants (whose logos I had hung about the room in classic 3 locale form), rejecting pizza, hamburgers and mangoes.
    I didn’t have a lesson plan. I only considered the hi-frequency structures I wanted to hit hard: likes, is hungry, goes. And I used the direct cognates (in the form of plastic food) to great effect.
    I didn’t work from a written script. I didn’t have a powerpoint or any follow up activities planned. Completely rogue.
    I decided to keep telling that same story (customized details), and amped it up a bit for the older grades by adding transitions, a color or 2, more emotions. Longer sentences/chunks of language. I was able to experiment with my own skills. When the story started to run outta juice, I created a quick slideshow (no words) and asked some questions. It felt novel as the dino looked different – and all the images were different.
    Then I renamed the slideshow and ‘saved as’ – this time with sentence captions. We read that in the upper grades (2nd-4th). I wanted to feel the power of the literacy step, which was such an abject failure in all my previous years. And WHOA! I did.
    Then I created an amped up embedded reading for the 3-4th graders. It was like 150+ words long and it went down smooth like honey. I wasn’t surprised – I was excited! I know the steps were scrambled, but so long as the kids were happy and demonstrating comprehension, I didn’t care. IEP kids were getting it alongside the school kid professionals. This was astonishing.
    I do think spending time observing veterans teaching beginners is extremely helpful. Also, participating in a demo of a language you don’t speak (we sat in a Greek demo at one of Von’s workshops – I learned a ton!)
    Bottom line for me – I didn’t feel ready to jump in and start teaching a la CI until I had a critical mass (threshold) of skill. It’s cuz I didn’t know where I was going, and I was concerned about all the pieces. Luckily I was supported and left to figure it out those first several months with no judgement. This is CRUCIAL.
    Now that we’re heading into spring, I am glad that I have the road map of a novel apiece in 3rd and 4th. I find it exhausting to spin stories, even with a picture or story or MT prompt, all the time. When we finish the novels, I wanna try to incorporate some Invisibles and some magic tricks, as I can’t keep up with all the fantastic ideas churning from this PLC Idea factory.
    I’d love to hear how others came to T/CI proficiency, how/whether they plan; and what they think would be optimal T/CI teacher training.

  7. It’s only been a couple of years, but I can feel how it gets easier to go free-form after you’ve had lots of practice with CI. Last year I had them draw pictures of two things that they like to do, and then we put them on the doc cam one by one over several days. It was tedious and flat. I almost skipped doing it this year, but decided to give it another try. Totally different experience. I put a student in charge of the doc cam, so I’m not scampering back and forth. I told the class that we’d do five per day (we don’t always get to that many). As soon as the picture goes up, I say the students name with love and admiration and we all take a pause to look at the images. Sometimes we crack up for a while. I’m not in a hurry. I’m not circling, I’m just trying to learn all I can about the person and make as many connections as possible with others in the room. And say “likes” over and over. It has been truly pleasurable for me and the students have not seemed restless. After we do a few, we stop and write down sentences about what we learned about what the students like to do. There are lots of factors…I have particularly peaceful and friendly (and small) classes this semester, for one thing…but I think I’m also learning that the deeper I go into the process of CI teaching, the easier it is to do free-form kind of stuff that’s minimally planned. I know that this is not news to anybody, but it is pretty amazing to be experiencing the process.

    1. This is awesome! Another example of recycling, recycling those superstar verbs (likes, is, etc.) and relying on a visual to support the non-frequent vocab. Plus you have paper to write on if the kids need you to write the word and maybe the English.
      I think one part of teacher training to go more free-form is for teachers to practice using the words on the “Top 100 Words in Language” list, just seeing how long they can go conversing in L2 with words from the list. Maybe let them use three “freebies” that they write on the paper. (I also think that we should have folks start their demo careers sitting down with a couple of partners and not up at a poster on the wall, as it is freaky intimidating even for a person with experience.)
      I think that unless a person has a deep confidence in the power of the top 100 words or the top 200 words (for non-beginner classes), they will feel this pressure that to be spontaneous is going to take them out of bounds. But if they have built up confidence that you REALLY can do a lot with the top 100 words, and that is why they are on the lists, then they can draw upon that in unscripted moments and kind of “feel” the high-frequency backbone in their gut as they teach. So maybe we should really be working those lists with the new teachers if they are truly going to jump into the deep end without going off it.

  8. I’m not sure why this post confuses me so much, but I’m lost.

    Ben, when you post your next videos, maybe you could identify what you started with: your version of a “plan” or the guidelines you had in place prior to the lesson. Then maybe when we see how it forms and where it goes, it may be clearer.

  9. And for a contrasting version of TPRS, one that depends heavily on targeting, I found this article while working on my own description of TPRS (applied to Chinese esp.) for the FluentU Chinese educator blog.

    This is not how I will describe TPRS:
    I don’t know of the author of that article, or when it was written.

    There’s another one more specific to Spanish:

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