Thoughts on Elementary TPRS Instruction

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43 thoughts on “Thoughts on Elementary TPRS Instruction”

  1. Thank you Catharina… this makes me feel better about what I’ve been doing in my elementary classes. I don’t mean to say that I know what I’m doing with the little ones, but, reading your class run-down is eerily similar to how things have been operating in my class. I’ve been feeling like a failure, somewhat, using the same couple structures (tiene/quiere) with the first/second graders the last couple weeks, like their teachers are sitting listening to us and wondering “when the hell are they gonna move on?!” I haven’t moved on because acquisition is (or seems?) so much slower the younger they get, and I am trying to heed our charge to stay comprehensible.

    1. Yes, I found this, too. Younger kids need more reps, I think – or maybe it’s partly that they can’t concentrate as well as older people.

      Since NTPRS’ War Room, I have been thinking about the very, very limited language I used in the demo I did in Kunming dialect Chinese. I used those same words (the one word for all “to be” verbs, he, she, you, I/me… plus 2 question words that I pointed to) for 4 or 5 classes with 4th grade exploratory classes last year and the year before that. They really needed that much time to feel comfortable understanding and responding. The faster processors were not bored; they just started to output spontaneously. We did different activities every day, but same words.

      PS, thank you for the very high compliments here, Catharina. It was easier to maintain slow with the 4th and 5th graders than with any other classes I’ve taught, I think.

    2. Hi Jim,
      Can you be more specific with what you are doing with tiene and quiere? Those two words are very worthy goals.
      I’ve been working on buenos días, buenas trades, buenas noches the last couple of weeks with my kindergarten, first and second graders. This week I said, Levántense. I then asked what do you think Levántense means? In more than one class, someone guessed good afternoon. Yikes! Talk about feeling like a failure. This post was good for me.

      1. I used to say “buenos días” at the start of class. Towards the end of the year I asked a class what it meant and many said “How are you.” This is how acquisition works, though. They pick up pieces of the meaning. If we focus them consciously, deliberately, AND briefly, on the the translation, then we can speed up that natural process. I hope.

        1. Me and you are tussling on this speeding up thing. I just don’t think that we can speed up the process. Speeding up something that is natural is not really possible, is it? I’m going to come up there and give you a noogie. But I may be wrong. I just think that we have to accept that in four years we are going to get a very small percent of the time we need with kids and just to accept that fact. How small a percent? Well, if it takes 15,000 hours to get to fluency (I’m just making that number up but I know that it is more than 10,000), and we have 500, then in a high school program we have … I can’t do the math. What is it?

          1. I may have 500 hours of class time, but I am a crappy teacher and only use MAYBE half of that for actual instruction. The rest is discipline, paperwork, and transitions.

          2. Ben, we are saying the same thing.

            I’m saying that asking “What does that mean?”, Point & Pause, and establishing meaning is how we get 100% comprehension. Pure acquisition, pure unconscious instruction, would not do that – would not use the L1. They’d have to pick up the meaning purely from context. For a moment we actually do deliberately teach, only we call it making the language comprehensible. I was proposing that if we didn’t do the brief translation and left it up to pure acquisition, then it would take longer for kids to come up with the meaning on their own, which means translation potentially does speed it up.

            I would love to have you come up here! Do a little teacher coaching and you can give me all the noogies you want.

          3. Let’s talk about the nature of the brief translation you describe. I tried hard to break myself of giving them the translation during the CI, but before. I think that switching the language during the CI, other than to ask what I just said, is somehow not helping them develop the mental patterning to absorb/acquire in the pure way. It also makes it too easy on me. My job is to make myself understood in the slowest of slow ways, providing interest, high quality, intuitive Circling, etc. I can’t let myself off the hook by quickly inserting the English. It would make them lazy. Do I understand correctly, Eric? I would like to know what the group thinks on this point.

          4. My original point was that I had used a greeting without enough comprehension checks or without establishing meaning well enough, and so some kids had been hearing me use the greeting for a while and did not give it the correct meaning.

            Isn’t it a Susie Gross thing, to whisper to the group the translation as if it were a side comment (Hand to side of face and whisper, “That means ___”, or just whisper the L1 translation) ?? It’s a quick glossing of the word.

            I recall reading research a while ago that I thought said that it is ineffective when teachers speak the L2 and translate EVERYTHING to L1 afterwards. In that case, the kids can be lazy, and just wait for the L1. Since we’re aiming for high comprehensibility, there would be infrequent L1 glosses.

            How is asking a student to translate (e.g. “What did I just say?”) any different from a teacher translating? The difference is the kid has a chance at retrieval, maybe reinforcing the L2->L1 link, but to us thinking CI is the only way, then any output is only the result of input. Either way, retrieval would be only for that kid who gives the correct answer. For the rest of the class, it’s the same thing whether a student or teacher translates.

            What happens when the kid doesn’t know what it means or gets it wrong when asked what something means? What do you do when a kid signals he doesn’t understand?

            Are you saying, we should not do any point and pause?. . . when I’m in my 10 minute bursts, and I want to bring a word in bounds, I’ll write it on the board along with it’s translation, rather than speak the English. This is more to honor the L2 burst. It would certainly be quicker to just say the L1 and go right back to L2.

            I’m not sure there’d be any acquisition difference between establishing meaning beforehand or doing it reactively, i.e. when it arises in context.

            If we’re talking about making the kids lazy, then “plowing through a reading” by translating to L1 while kids “read” the L2 should be first on the list to go. I don’t do it for that reason.

          5. When we discuss glossing, the jury seems to be out on how much to gloss. I got the impression that Eric you were advocating lots of it, and, for those who haven’t kept up with the thread, I objected on the grounds that it made kids and teachers lazy.

            Glossing makes kids lazy because they can just tune out the teacher if they knew they will hear the translation later anyway, and it makes teachers lazy because it relieves them from doing good teaching and taking the full mantle of responsibility on the person it should be on in terms of making things comprehensible – themselves.

            I have been to at least 20 Susan Gross trainings and I don’t remember glossing as something she did much of, and I thought it was usually directed at one student and not the entire class. I don’t remember her directing a translation in the middle of a story to the entire class. Maybe she did, but I don’t remember that. I do remember the rigor with which she pursued making herself responsible to being understood in the TL.

            Hmmm. We probably need to make some kind of decision on this rather major important pedagogical point. One of my great concerns is that as more and more people do this method it will lose its form and become a formless mass, of no value to anyone because so many people have riffed on the original ideas, putting so many bows and ribbons and bells and whistles on them that we think that they ARE the method.

            This method must at its core be kept as we learned it from Blaine and Suzy and Carol originally. The message is simple: we fire up in our classrooms Krashen’s most simple idea of getting the students focused only on the message and not the words via comprehensible input so that the process is ENTIRELY (ideally) UNCONSCIOUS, and thus we impart the language, giving it life, like the life we find in the the fired up mugs and bowls by Boulanger Pottery (instead of the shit coffee mugs we buy at Wal-Mart or at thrift stores) that many of the readers of this site will buy for Christmas presents this year:


            In terms of this question:

            …how is asking a student to translate (e.g. “What did I just say?”) any different from a teacher translating?…

            to me there is a big difference. I only use that question to bring spaced out kids back. It is largely a discipline tool for me. Yes, sometimes I ask it when I “feel” – we all know that feeling – that I am losing them. But I see a qualitative difference in that and glossing.

            Here is the most important question you raise:

            …are you saying, we should not do any point and pause?…

            Yes, I am. This is a huge problem and keeps teachers from exercising in-bounds restraints on themselves, causing them to lose control of their stories. We must point and pause only to the target structures, ideally. I know that that is impossible, but so I say we should use that teaching strategy in a very limited way during a story. Ideally, we know what our students know and we use only those words plus the target structures. The board should be empty of any new words exept the target structures which have remained up on the board during class, the only stars of the show.

            Off I go to downtown Denver to sell books with Carol. She is the keynote speaker at our state fall conference. I will ask her about this topic and report back tonite. We will talk about Giants baseball – three of her students start for the Giants. I will not get into any arguments about pedagogy with any teachers. I will not sneer when they sneer. I can do this.

          6. Check out #4 & #18, which is relevant to this discussion. Of course, the answers depend on Nation’s interpretation of the research.


            4. The most effective way of beginning to learn the meaning of a word is by

            A the use of a picture
            B translation into the first language
            C a dictionary definition
            D seeing a word in context
            E don’t know

            18 Quickly providing meanings for unknown words while listening or reading

            A has little effect on comprehension of the text
            B upsets comprehension of the text
            C greatly increases the amount of vocabulary learned
            D results in little vocabulary learning
            E don’t know

          7. In a perfect “world” I get the kids now for 85 hours a year. (175 days / 2 = 87.5, take away assemblies, meetings, IEPs, sick days and it’s much lower! I have them for 70 min. blocks, but it turns out to be 60 with the settling in, attendance, “forget my notebook in my locker” – bc they can’t carry backpacks in school anymore) So I am being VERY generous on 85 hours/year.
            The state of Maine has announced their graduation proficiency standards, and with this year’s freshmen, they are ALL to graduate with a proficiency in L2 at Intermediate Mid. yeah, it’s stressful, but at the same time I wonder, “HOW can we do it, with what we are given?” and I stop stressing. I want the kids to be able to USE the language – not regurgitate memorized phrases and that is exactly what their new push for Performance Based Learning and Assessments will do! Maine does not seem to be in sync with ACTFL and their can-do statements! they are teaching teachers to write up units based upon vocabulary themes, instead of big over-arching enduring understanding themes (like ACTFL wants us to do)…with culture being at the heart of it. It’s so hard for me because my colleagues are wanting to write units based on “travel” “clothing” “weather” “geography” etc etc. and then we will have common assessments based upon the kids learning that same vocab AT THE SAME TIME instead of “teaching for june” (ht: Scott benedict) so, I am now feeling stressed and so is my colleague who just wants to have the kids learn to LOVE the language!!! what the hell do we do?

          8. All graduating at Int-Mid?! And irrespective of total instruction time. How are they going to measure that?

            Theme-based teachers should consider the broader usefulness of the vocabulary by consulting a frequency dictionary. And besides frequency, teachers should be wary of theme-based teaching due to interference.

            Use this to explain why teaching together words and grammar of similar form and/or similar meaning is ineffective, i.e. causes “interference.” (Higa, 1963; Laufer, 1989; Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993; Tinkham, 1997; Waring, 1997).

            Here is the abstract of Waring, 1997:

            “In this journal Tinkham (1993) in two experiments found that learning words grouped in semantic sets interferes with the learning of words. Tinkham found that if learners are given words which share a common superordinate concept (such as words for clothes) in list form, they are learned slower than words which do not have a common superordinate concept. This finding suggests that we should not give wordlists to our learners which have words that come from the same semantic set, but should be asking them to learn words semantically unrelated to each other. The present study, a close replication of Tinkham’s, used Japanese words paired with artificial words and found a main effect against learning semantically related words at the same time, replicating Tinkham’s findings. It can be tentatively concluded from these two papers that presenting students with wordlists of new words in semantic clusters, rather than in unrelated word groups, can interfere with learning. Following a discussion of the research design and some of its limitations, there is some comment on current research methodology.”


            And this from Nation, 2000:

            “This research shows that learning related words at the same time makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use. . . The criteria of usefulness (frequency or need) and avoidance of interference (ease of learning) are more important than aiming for early completeness of lexical sets. In addition to the criteria of frequency and avoidance of interference, course designers need to apply a criterion of normal use, meaning that words should occur in normal communication situations, not in contrived, language-focused activities.”


            We need to get everyone to agree that curriculum content should be high frequency vocabulary + flexibility for personalization. Some types of organization/sequences will be more effective than others, i.e. reduce interference and more compelling. Syllabi could be based on themes, functions, situations, tasks, etc. A TCI syllabus is based on texts, specifically stories. We use a text-based or story-based syllabus.

          9. mb, I love the idea that proficiency in another language is part of the expectation for students in your state. It would be part of ending monolingualism (as my dept. chair likes to express her goal as a teacher).

            But at Intermediate-Mid!!! With 85 hours of time per year! Someone has unrealistic views. And for any language, after language classes only in high school? They need to be giving language classes lots of time from kindergarten on if they want such proficiency. They also need to look at the differences in time needed for fluency to develop. (Ex: If you want to read Chinese, you’re going to move much slower than an alphabet language. Percentage of cognates is very low, and that means more time needed aurally.)

            I think I’d be writing letters and petitions to the state standards people if I were in your situation. Or I’d be hoping someone more prominent would do it, and I’d sign on!

        2. Yes Eric. So true.
          If we don’t tell kids what words mean, they’ll make it up.
          With TCI we are looking at – ideally- 100% comprehension. Right?
          Other methods content themselves with kids “getting the gist”.

          Aya, with my 4 year old students I spend a few minutes on Fridays reviewing all the words ( single words or micro-mini sentences). I either ask the whole class or individual students. I say it in French they respond in English. “Bonjour” means …. “Lucy va chez Megan”… and one by one we go over all the words they’ve learned so far. No guessing or confusion.

          I am immensely honoured to be part of this blog. I have worked days, nights, endless hours trying to understand how to reach my little students. Why, I don’t know? I caught the TPRS virus. Not very contagious in this part of New Jersey. Malheureusement.

          To think that world class teachers like Ben, Jody, Jim, Diane N., Martha, Aya and Eric H., read and approve of what I do…
          Thank you.

          1. And Catharina that is why we don’t use the TL 100% of the time and we really get serious about the first part of Step 1 of TPRS. It’s not just about lots of PQA reps (the second part of Step 1), it’s about establishing meaning very efficiently before the PQA. We do that not just by telling and writing down for our students what it means, but by gesturing and, most importantly, by not assuming anything during the lesson and by constantly asking them what it means, (“What did I just say?” as per Blaine). It would be 100% of the time, but that 3% to 5% of the time we are not in the TL, we are using English to really be aggressive in checking to see that they know what it means. We talk a lot about trying to stay in the TL 95% of the time, but the other 5% is equally important. That is, by the way, almost impossible – to carve out our available instruction minutes into those percentages – and that is why I do allow time to talk about the football game or whatever, just not during the ten minutes bursts I arrange with my timer, when it’s game on.

      2. Aya, with quiere and tiene, in the elementary grades, I’ll either bring a student up and say they have something or don’t have something, and want something. Right now as I’m building up to the intro to the Sr. Wooly video PAN, I use cognates like “taco” or “burrito” or “sandwich” or “banana” (helps to bring one in!) and then start throwing in “pan” and “sopa” after a couple classes once they’re getting a bit more comfortable with tiene/quiere. Lots of “Que Asco” and “Que Rico” guided yelling. I was struggling with one group of first graders, trying to get them to simply concentrate on what I was saying. So, I had them sit on the floor (I go to their classrooms in the early grades) and that was a huge improvement right there. I started drawing a picture of a girl, and drew two eyes. We talked about that she HAS eyes, she DOESN’T HAVE 3 eyes (hahaha from them!), two eyes, and she has a (banana, sandwich, whatever they say, so I drew that in her hand) but she has a problem… she doesn’t have a… mouth! (guided yelling Ayayay!) Then there is a boy (I haven’t taught “there is” yet, I just point and say “es un chico” and circle IT IS instead of THERE IS… seems easier for the moment) who HAS a mouth, no, two mouths (drew one in his hand), and the rest I didn’t get to yet but obviously she is going to WANT the mouth, because she doesn’t HAVE one, and she WANTS the mouth because she WANTS TO EAT the (sandwich/banana/whatever). The teacher talk of the above is simpler of course, but maybe this will help give you some ideas. It worked so well that I used it with fifth graders the same day with similar success (but found that I moved slower in the plot line with the 5th graders, but did much more PQA and asked for more details with the 5th graders. The first graders were less tolerant of non-action it seemed to me, but maybe that will change???

        1. I agree with you, Jim, again about littler kids. The younger they are, the more concrete action they need. Everything tied to something visual. Sounds like you have a really wonderful class with them.

          1. Shucks, thanks guys. But I’ve got to say, in the spirit of humility being spread, that all I know about teaching this way is from this group and the conversations had here, and from the writing here of people like Robert and Ben and Jody and Carol and Grant and Sean and Eric and Chris and Laurie and James and Jen and… ok, I give up, too many to name. And the few books published about this way of teaching/thinking. (Makes me think I’ve seen this somewhere before. Yes, I have, it’s a common sentiment here, we’re a pretty humble group.)

            Catharina, please keep the gems of Elem Fluency Teaching coming… it’s influencing to a LARGE extent my approach with them, and I’m able to be a better teacher to them because of it. Plus, hearing from others how slow the acquisition of these very young ones appears to be happening is consoling. It makes sense. They’re not too far along in their L1 yet.

  2. So James what percentage of 15,000 is 250 hours? It’s 6%. We have 6% of the time needed to get to fluency. What I did during my career was to ignore that and say, “Nope, my students are going to go a lot further down the road to fluency than those students in those other classes!” Given that many of those students were not motivated, that was not a good decision for me. It made me nervous all the time.

    Now that I look back on my career, I see how much of it was motivated by seeking the approval of those around me. And so I taught my ass off. But now that I have almost four decades of it, and know the research better, and in particular I have come to a deep respect for the amount of time required to learn a language, I can forgive myself that all my students didn’t get fours on the AP French exam. I can forgive myself for being kind of crazy.

    To me natural slow circled input means exactly that. Allowing things to come up in class instead of forcing them is what I wished I had done in class since I began teaching. Trusting in the language to direct the flow of the conversation*. Not trying to control everything all the time. Going to work every day and not giving in to the desire to lose my balance with my students, because I want them to learn so badly, as per this by Thomas Merton:

    “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”


    1. I think one can be fluent with what one has acquired, or one can be fluent with the entirety of the language. The latter I think, with its accompanying giganto number required to achieve, is not in our best interests to highlight, because it’s nearly impossible. We don’t need to produce Pablo Nerudas. We just need to produce speakers who can produce the top 100 or 500 or 2000 words without flinching when they need to. That doesn’t require 10000 hours.

      See for an exaggerated (yet entertaining) TED talk of what I’m saying.

      1. 3,000 word families acquired = moderate comprehension of real world speech
        7,000 word families acquired = adequate comprehension of real world speech

        They can be fluent with the language they get from 4 years of high school. Isn’t likely to be proficient enough to understand the outside world.

        1. And what if they don’t even want to be understood in another language, but are praying for someone to understand them in their first language, and to understand others when spoken to in their first language. We are up against a lot.

  3. I think this is relevant, even though it is an L1 study (from Warwick Elley’s paper, which by the way I’ve been highlighting key sentences and am going to share it with the English teachers and admin at my school):

    “The results for the pupils who listened to the high-interest story Rapscallion Jones, with the brief accompanying explanations of the target words, were most impressive”.

    This was in contrast to independent reading, and to listening without the teacher explanations. In other words, letting them guess at the meaning is less effective than just telling them (and by extension checking in with them to ensure they still know what it means).

    The key word is “brief”. That is why it is not efficient to stop and look up a word meaning when we’re reading. We lose momentum and therefore interest in the activity. With oral input we make it quick without losing much momentum.

    1. I can see how that came off that way, but it’s not what I meant. I agree with you (with literate kids). What I’m suggesting should be brief is not the explanation (that would in essence be us explaining the meaning of a word in L2 e.g. “perhaps means maybe”, since we’re L2 teachers… this was an L1 study). But the comprehension checks should be brief, whether they’re done in English or TL. And they should be done enough so that we’re making sure kids understand the meaning of them. I was trying to find the connection to what we do with the results from the Elley study.

      I’ve found that exact thing Ben, that when I translate for the kids during the telling/asking of something (unless it’s a super low-frequency word that I don’t want to take up their gray matter on), it tends to lower the L2 energy in the room, all around. And I speed up. It indeeds makes us lazy.

  4. So that is new to me. Does anyone else agree that briefly telling them the word in L1 during a story is not a good thing, that it makes both the teacher and the student lazy? For me it goes back to, instead of telling them the word in L1, rather teaching so well and so slowly that there is no doubt about what the word means.

    1. I agree with you, Ben. I always feel silly when I answer confused looks with a quick, “Oh, x means y.” It’s like I’m chasing my tail. If you’re not careful, your students will learn how to play you. (Says the guy who is played all day every day, by the way.) Point and pause is by nature more disciplined.

      1. Totally James. The onus of clarification should be more on them, that they need to be shown how to ask for clarification of what they don’t understand, otherwise they are not showing good Interpersonal Comm skills. Looking confused is a weak start (they’re communicating non-verbally), but after the first week or two they should be able to let us know what they don’t understand when they don’t understand it. (To getting played, and being willing to recognize/admit it! Don’t we all get played to an extent?). Point and pause does naturally slow us down, and also gives them the visual of the word.

        Re glossing, I don’t support it as a theoretical practice for literate students, for the reasons you lay out. But I do do it sometimes (and for decent reason to me, in the moment)? Maybe once every ten minutes, on average. Moreso when we’re reading a text that is more incomprehensible than I’d liked or expected, or when PQAing about something that I hadn’t planned to. It happens.

        1. 3 issues here.

          1) No new words
          2) Students signal
          3) How to establish meaning or clarify

          We strive for #1 & #2. Rather than the teacher glossing automatically, it is the result of students signalling. I think the fastest, most accurate way to #3 is with an L1 translation.

          There may be times when we have to frequently ask “What did I just say?” as a discipline strategy, as feedback, and as a way to make sure everyone’s linking the spoken form with the correct meaning. I think the “What did I just say?” would happen less and less as we got more reps on the target structure. If that’s right, then it would happen more in step 1 than in step 2. Maybe never in step 2. I don’t ask it during 10 minute bursts.

  5. With preliterate kids, I’ve had to replace point and pause with translation comprehension checks. In essence it’s the same thing. Non? One is a written form, the other oral.

    1. Does that mean the only translation would be of the 3 structures and only as the first part of step 1? I don’t understand the difference between glossing structures at the beginning of a lesson and glossing words during. And sometimes we decide on a structure as it comes up and needed (personalized structure). What happens on a reading day when we usually translate (e.g. chorally or popcorn/volleyball translate, etc)? Seems like “no glossing” is an unnecessary restriction.

      No L1 is something we are aiming for, but doesn’t seem too realistic. And when there is a need to bring a word in bounds or clarify a recycled word we can be clearest about meaning with a quick gloss. The other option is to do the gesture dance, draw a picture, etc. and hope they all get the meaning. They won’t. Maybe they’ll get a piece of it. And if they got enough different contexts they’ll eventually figure it out – comes back to whether we have enough time. We are not glossing everything. I don’t see the harm of a quick and infrequent gloss as needed.

      Last Friday night I ran into some 4th graders and they said to me: “Buenos días” [Good morning]. This was never a structure. It’s the meaning they’ve picked up for the word. I could hope they get more context or in a future class I could take 2 seconds and say “Buenos días means good morning.”

      What I understand some TCI practitioners do (e.g. Beniko Mason) is tell the class a story and while they are telling the story, they’re drawing pictures, gesturing, likely labeling the picture in L1, and maybe even orally glossing. Is there a difference between a written and an aural gloss?

      Noogie time? 😉

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