Too Many Chains

PQA is great, but, originally, as I understand it, Blaine used it as a way of etching in, drilling in, the three structures prior to the story so that the story could be more easily understood.
I wrote in a recent blog on how that particular process differs from what we have come to know in TPRS as a general personalization session, one that is free form, usually done at the beginning of the year, in which we just talk to the kids using the questionnaires and or the Circling with Balls cards or whatever comes up to bring greater personalization to our classroom at that time of year when it is critical to get to know the kids and to build a bridge of trust with them.
My purpose in that blog of a few weeks ago (Two Kinds Of PQA – January 1, 2010) was simply to clarify the term PQA, which has now seemed to morph into two things. It is possible that Blaine’s original “formula”, if you will, that of putting up three structures and then doing personalized questions and answers around them in order to set up a story, must not be strayed from too much in the name of just talking to the kids after the initial personalization work is done. Why?
That original formula of doing PQA around three structures to introduce a story has a huge advantage over the other, more diffuse and rambling, kind of just-talking-to-them PQA. That advantage lies in its simplicity and in the repetition we find in stories, as per Mike’s comment yesterday re his elephant story.
In TPRS, simplicity manifests in the principle that says that we shelter vocabulary but not grammar. That means that we focus on creating a flow of correct speech (i.e. grammar), but without getting hung up on teaching too many new words. Our students don’t need to know a lot of individual words. They need to know the sense of a chain of words together. How does that principle fit in with the point above about Blaine’s use of PQA to set up a story?
Well, and I hope this is clear, we just can’t throw a truckload of new chains of words at a kid in one class period. It would be too many. If each sentence is a chain, a physical chain made of metal, then, in this kind of free form PQA, we always run the risk of putting too many chains around the necks of our students, of going too wide, of bringing in too many words, which can be bewildering to new langauge learners and teachers alike.
This kind of free form PQA is not so bad with the Circling with Balls Cards and Questionnaires at the beginning of the year when I am going for absolute transparency. But, when I just go in on a Monday and start talking about what the kids did that weekend, things get confusing – there is too much new vocabulary and, often, only the brightest kids hang with the discussion.
I don’t know how Dirk and, I think, Jim and Thomas, and all of the rest of those folks who do that on Monday, avoid losing kids. It doesn’t work for me as well as I would like. It makes me nervous because there are no limits to the scope of the discussion – i.e. too many new language chains.
Enter Blaine’s original PQA formula. The PQA in Step One is short, often addressing only one or two of the three structures because the others don’t lend themselves to PQA, and then off we go into the story. And, because the story is limited to three locations, random chain production, in the form of too many varied and new sentences, is further avoided.
Blaine knew, by having three locations, that the same structures repeat themselves (as in fairy tales for children), and that, in this three part repetition, the student is guaranteed shelter from too much new vocabulary, from too many chains. I have heard many people say that the number three is a big number in TPRS.
Therefore, if we feel that, when we deliver CI in whatever form to our kids, we are getting too “all over the place”, then we should return to simple stories as per Amy Catania’s materials, or any stories scripts that keep things simple. (Of course, we must remember, as well, that the main reason that we lose kids in TPRS is that we fail to remember the SLOW skill.)
Blaine’s plan, the three steps, guarantees simplicity. Just get a simple story, PQA the structures after defining and perhaps signing and gesturing them, start the story, use the PQA’d structures first in location one of the story, then use them again (very little new stuff!) in locations two and three. You can’t lose when you follow the three steps.
Yet another reason to stay close to the three steps is that the related activities, retells, readings, pictures, dictation, freewrites – all of that stuff that we do to move the (so far only auditory) story into reading and writing and speaking areas – are connected to a simple story. This helps the kids gain confidence because they can remember the words.
We remind ourselves, therefore, in this blog as a response to Mike’s comment about the elephant story he created, that the generalized PQA Circling with Balls cards and all that kind of PQA are great (and necessary to personalize a classroom) at the beginning of the year, but that perhaps the greatest language gains will come, during the course of the year, from just following the three steps, because there is no better way to shelter vocabulary but not grammar than by following and staying with the simple three step formula that Blaine invented.



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