Thorndike/Yoshi Reflections

Nothing like a good night’s sleep. This stuff is so complex! It involves not just work on a conscious level but also on an unconscious level so that the method can be fully integrated into our deeper minds. If we are to truly learn this method, we have to be willing to work hard. I was struck by how much I didn’t know, felt awkward with, while being observed by those seven people yesterday, with the videotape rolling, etc. It really helps to have someone like Diana there afterwards to tell me straight up what she saw, what was good and what was bad. Anyway, the good night’s sleep helped me process the following things:
1. Stories really do have a lot of power in terms of grabbing and keeping kids’ interest, as long as the script is good. Anne called the Thorndike story a “workhorse” in an email to me yesterday. But, even this workhorse of a story script served my purpose of demonstrating the method yesterday. The point is that, very often, when PQA lacks mojo, stories can turn the tide and bring the interest.
2. TPR is necessary. I was way off on that for the past six or seven years, when I just got away from it, as I became enamored of the Circling with Sports Balls activity to start the year. We absolutely must have a list of verbs that we TPR exhaustively to start the year and we shouldn’t even start stories until that is done. So, if we do both TPR and Circling with Balls, then our kids will be properly prepared because they know the verbs that keep coming up in the stories and they also know that the teacher likes them and cares about them so it all works together. We need both the verbs and the personalization pieces in place before we start stories (not to mention a good hammering of the rules and phone calls home in those first few weeks).
3. It’s not just that the absenteeism rate is so high in the culture of the school I now teach in, especially in late afternoon classes, but also that those verbs, the way I have it set up now, were buried in my new Word Wall* and so wouldn’t be presented for weeks or months anyway. So, hanging out there with your district coordinator and your new principal who has never seen you teach and a district coach and four teachers – that’s seven people – and realizing in the moment of the class that your kids weren’t ready to do stories was kind of unnerving.
4. A little time out – someone in an email told me that all of this is “so confusing”. My response is that we have to get used to that as we continue to work together. There is no “method” because this work is in a constant state of development and change and is continuously morphing into new forms. It is a way, an outlook, an approach, a path, and not a method. There are no experts and no defined program. The three steps are indispensible and must absolutely be used for stories to work, but we ust learn to use them with a lot of flex and bending.
5. The main thing I learned yesterday, in observing and reflecting on the story (which is no longer Thorndike – I now call it Yoshi) – and this is the big learning from yesterday – is what Diana told me after the story: “Ben, you just went way out of bounds the whole time.” Whoops! Going out of bounds is as bad as going too fast! The kids can’t understand anything in either situation, one because of the speed and two because of all the new sounds. This reflects Laurie’s brilliant comment here today about the Green Screen. As Laurie has said:
…the most “natural” way is to pick a high-frequency phrase ….just one…and build your story around that….
6. A word about actors. Be careful about choice of actors. The kid who volunteered to act yesterday entered my class very late as a student three weeks ago, plays sports, and has had maybe ten classes this year, and in those, he is not the most focused kid in the universe. It didn’t help. Actors have the double responsibility of standing in front of peers in a mature way and paying full attention to the language, which are not easy things to do. If the videotape of yesterday’s class is useable, you can see in it my own style of getting actors up, which is to simply say in English, in that moment when I realize that the story is now rolling and I need an actor: “We need a (boy, dad, girlfriend)…”, etc. and then point to the stool in the front of the room next to me and wait until some kid gets up to play the part we need. Sometimes the wait is awkward but I don’t care, I just wait it out.
So my two big learnings from the story yesterday are:
a. to make sure that the kids have plenty of TPR’d verbs at the ready in their deeper minds before I start stories.
b. to prevent myself from adding too many new words into the story every few minutes. My teacher mind – the one from before – just wants to impart that information and show off but it is all wrong and it’s embarrassing in this videotape. (But I guess I can’t ask the group to put up bad video unless I am willing to do it myself.)
The entire key point in this videotape for me is that we stick to the story scripts and the targeted structures and absolutely avoid introducing anything new to stories that the students don’t already know, as per that recent post “Only The Structures Can Be New”.
* The problem with my new Word Wall of 140 verbs, which is a good representative wall of high frequency vocabulary, is that it doesn’t adequately present enough of the important verbs early enough on, as per Bryce’s recent point that TPRS is largely a verb based method. The verbs should be in the first few columns of words to be learned in the first weeks of school. As it is now, it is a big mix, and some of the most crucial verbs for stories in that current word wall are weeks, or even months, from being TPR’d because they are in the form of that big list. So this is a formal request from the group for a good TPR Word Wall to go with my general Word Wall. We need a good one and I can put what we decide on up on the posters page of this site when we get it. Please be clear, by the way, that the the wrong Word Wall is on my site right now. It is out of date. I will put the one I now use – or the one that we come up with together – on the posters page of this site and we can straighten all this word wall stuff out to be ready for next year.



15 thoughts on “Thorndike/Yoshi Reflections”

  1. Another thought I just had when looking at the videotape was how this is not a high energy class at all where I expend a lot of energy. I had just finished 40 miles on my bike and wasn’t particulary energized. I’m just talking to them here. It doesn’t always have to be all high energy. That is one of those TPRS myths.

  2. Ben, I had a kid who is speeding ahead of his class tell me just that on Thursday. He said that he wanted to buy just one book to help with his Russian, and he thought he would buy a verb book. He said, “I need to know my verbs. I can just point at everything else.” This is the first-year kid who is already ahead of his classmates by about two years. He is even ahead of the TPRS-trained second-year fellow classmates. He really gets it.
    My first response was going to be to tell him not to do that, but I realize that he’s a four-per center who has also figured out how to play the TPRS game (amazing combination!) and a verb book will probably just spur him on.
    So yeah…verb phrases / structures with verbs are where it’s at.

  3. “So this is a formal request from the group for a good TPR Word Wall ”
    Yay! I was about to write up this request myself! I am finding that I don’t TPR nearly enough. So odd, because I think TPR is fun and effective. I used to do it quite a bit in my exploratory classes. I always wondered why I never incorporated it into my other classes. Anyway, I def. need a list. I think it will be ok to do now, as a brain break to get the kids up and moving. I’m even going to use it (ha…ESPECIALLY going to use it in my level 4 class since they are the most chart-fossilized group I have).
    Yesterday at Susie’s workshop she reminded us how critical it is for the kids to have a good foundation in their bodies of lots of TPR verbs!

    1. I once inherited a group of French 4 kids who were so fossilized that I think it hurt them deeply. They never learned how to play the game is spite of my sleepless nights. It’s hard to imagine the true impact on the mind, not to mention a kid’s confidence, of that memorization stuff. It’s an egregious waste of talent. It makes them robotic. It’s worse than we think. Better they had never studied the language, I sometimes think. Anyway, jen, I think I know why I personally never pushed TPR that much. It’s boring for me! I want to start in on the good stuff right away. So this story about Yoshi was an excellent wake up call for me.

  4. I use TPR a lot at the beginning of the year. I use Bertie Segal’s book and have also used the TPR list in one of the iterations of Blaine’s Green Book. I could be more intentional about the words I choose, but I question how much of a difference that would make. This year I am essentially doing a combination of TPR, Circling with Balls and OneWordImages the entire first semester. There’s enough variety and movement to keep the attn. of 14 year olds. only TPR gets real old, real quick.
    Another area that we don’t talk all that much about here is where to get gestures from. I know Ben just asks kids to come up with one. that can be very powerful and I do that often. I target words like ‘with’ and prepositional phrases. Those smaller in-between words. Because, if I can help their recall with a quick gesture it saves having to turn and Point and Pause. Here’s what I really want to share. When the kids don’t immediately come up with a good gesture, I fall back on American Sign Language. These signs usually make some sort of conceptual sense even to non-signers and can help bridge meaning from L1 to L2. I scaffold the presentation of the signs/gestures much as you would with TPR. The bottom of the scaffold is them doing the sign w/ me and me saying the word/phrase associated with it. The top of the scaffold is me doing the gesture and the kids repeating the meaning in L2.
    It’s such a powerful way to inject these words into long-term memory.

  5. I have been doing TPR and circling with name tags (no balls) in level 1. I think the TPR is a fun thing to do for the last five minutes of class, when they want to pack up their stuff and leave. I have them put everything away, stand up and do TPR until the bell rings.

  6. You should do a session on ASL at a conference Grant. I agree that there are some words that we need to have as a standard ASL set to use when needed.
    Melanie great thought – a great idea to end class when they put on their squirrel costumes.

  7. I am wishing I had begun the year with more TPR and gestures, but I think people are onto something with the “standardization” of gestures and signs. I know that having students come up with the gestures gives them ownership of the words, but here are some problems I have encountered this year:
    1. Students easily get into disputes over which sign is best, and students who want to derail the class have too much power in this context.
    2. if each class comes up with their own gesture, then I have to keep track of which gesture is used in which class/section. This means 4, 5, or even 6 sets of gestures for a teacher to remember.
    For next year, I’m leaning toward just teaching them signs and gestures when I teach write the word on the board, simply to avoid the above problems, and get on with the good stuff, rather than wasting time in the establishing meaning phase. Also, they’re happy to do actions, regardless of who decided on them. So has anyone had success in “imposing” a standard set of gestures for multiple classes?

    1. I think Grant has, but most people I know including me gave up on it as too complicated. I chucked both my ASL books that I bought in a fever of optimism in my first year with TPRS. I think if anything is going to work it will be what Grant is doing.
      We don’t need to get too involved with it. The way I understand PQA, we only have about a minute to do the entire gesturing thing – with three structures that is three minutes already. I usually just show them what another class has done and we go quickly through it. There is too much to do. One reason you may want ASL, however, is to avoid having to model the gesture for the verb “to ski” by turning sideways. You may want to avoid that one.

    2. I only have 20 gestures that I used–I’d like to have more and look forward to seeing us come up with a list. I make up the gestures myself and have used the same ones for 2 years now; simplifies things for me. If the ASL doesn’t become too complicated, I’m interested.
      I, too, use TPR either as a way to start class (if my sophomores are being “low energy” or to end class if we have a couple of spare minutes). These students really like the TPR–in small doses–and enjoyed teaching them to the 6th graders and to younger siblings. They recognize those verbs faster than any others both orally and in print. I forgot to do the gestures for a couple of weeks and they were glad when I added to the list again.

  8. I like the idea of using ASL as a source for some gestures and think one benefit is that we are giving students additional language exposure without diluting the focus on the target language for CI. One site I found provides a video dictionary of some basic signs in ASL. In case anyone could use this the site is: www dot signingsavvy dot com backslash browse-letter

  9. My students love TPR this year. My classes used to hate gestures, so this is a huge improvement! I usually ask the class to come up with their own gestures and then I fall back on ASL for abstract signs or when students just the can’t think of anything. I don’t require standardization. If they appear to understand, i let them run with it. (otherwise, quick comprehension check). The rule is not to criticize anyone else’s idea, but to think of something better or look around the room and copy something you like. This allows room for self expression… My dramatic kids make everyone else laugh. And my reserved kids don’t feel threatened… They just do enough to show me they get it. This also means i don’t have to remember signs. I just do ones they can recognize. If we are doing objects, I try to use real ones as often as possible. I learned from Ramiro garcia’s book that a demo can be powerful (he has a lot of good suggestions and examples.) That gives a break to the non-kinesthetic kids who get distracted by having to move their bodies. The more interaction, BEP, and personalization that are included, the better. Run, run fast/slow, run and read a magazine, run in a circle, run badly, run to a Justin Bieber concert, run like an elephant, run happily/sadly/ secretly, run with a friend/an enemy/Taylor lautner/Megan fox/whoever is on their questionnaires, or I ask them who they are running with or from. Watching Jason Fritze at IFLT was helpful. If I remember, he told the class to stand up fast, but quietly asked a slow moving person to move slow instead. Then he played with the resulting (dramatic) tension and personalization. Then he circled it. He also used teams (like mexico and spain) to multiply circling options without adding more new sounds. In my class, I tried, stand on the table/chair, and then asked those kids if they would like to dance/sing/ride a bike on the chair/table, and then circled that. they loved it.
    At one point, I found signs for “the” and “is” from signed english. I forgot though. If anyone knows and could share, I would be grateful.

  10. As one of the visitors fortunate to observe these lessons in person, I have to say that if Ben thinks that he has some improvement to do, it merely means that he wants to be able to hit upper-deck walk-off grand slams more frequently (instead of the run-of-the-mill homers such as this one).

  11. Wow, Kevin that is one of the coolest things I never dreamed of hearing. It’s funny about confidence, isn’t it? I admit it, I get a bunch of teachers like you in my classroom and all of a sudden I am a cadet back at Culver Military Academy trying to win the approval of people who will never approve of me. The self judgement thing is rough with TPRS because it is such a vast universe to tame. But when you say things like this, it makes me feel really good. I will go to work on the second half of the story you guys watched on Friday – we have six more 10′ clips to go to complete those two classes that you observed. And I am asking anyone who reads this and has seen those first two clips with translation titles, are they worth the time I put into them or are they sufficient without them?

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

Jeffrey Sachs was asked what the difference between people in Norway and in the U.S. was. He responded that people in Norway are happy and

CI and the Research (cont.)

Admins don’t actually read the research. They don’t have time. If or when they do read it, they do not really grasp it. How could

Research Question

I got a question: “Hi Ben, I am preparing some documents that support CI teaching to show my administrators. I looked through the blog and

We Have the Research

A teacher contacted me awhile back. She had been attacked about using CI from a team leader. I told her to get some research from



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