We Can't Have It Both Ways

This email from a colleague addresses the simple idea that if we teach numbers by themselves, the kids will learn only the numbers. But, if we teach the actual language, our kids will learn both numbers and the rest of the language as well. Here it is:
A second-year kid came in and complained that we hadn’t ever learned the numbers last year. So the next day, I told the class we were going to count. We counted to twenty. Then we counted by tens to a hundred. The next day we counted by hundreds to a thousand. The kid was counting just fine. I asked her, “You know how to count now, right?” and she said, “But you never taught us.” I asked her how she knew. She said she just did. I said that evidently she was a brilliant Russian student, and there was probably lots of other stuff I would never need to teach her. She looked doubtful, but I think she got the point and the compliment.
[ed. note: this is such a serious point. Often, when people start doing CI, they have a nagging feeling that they should be “teaching” something, like the numbers. But, what you have said above is the norm with us – our TPRS kids learn them in the unending flow of language. It is up to each of us to believe that, or, if we don’t, go back and teach the numbers separately as a unit, with the unforunate result that, if they do, their students really won’t learn shit.]
We never lined up to count buttons or anything else last year. I was actually a bit surprised that the second-year kids knew how to count, because I truly had never checked. They also know most of the days of the week, the months, the seasons, and the major weather patterns. But I have never taught them, even though I keep meaning to do something resembling your regular tests. I guess I could spend some time lining up and counting buttons, but we’d miss story time or reading or singing or FVR.
[ed. note: yeah, you could count buttons or teach your language. But you can’t have it both ways.]
Today, I told the number story to my first-year kids and challenged them to count. They can count to ten, and they know a bunch of random numbers, from 1/2 to a thousand to a million. They know some of the teens and a couple of the tens. I’m going to have faith that, by May, they’ll know the important numbers, whatever those are. They all know how old they are, despite the fact that I haven’t asked them that question, unless they told me it was their birthday.



5 thoughts on “We Can't Have It Both Ways”

  1. Oh boy, this is so true! But it also means that TPRS teachers have to keep good check on themselves to make sure they are frequently including numbers and other language items useful for mundane, not now (or maybe never) necessarily exciting transactions in non-anglophone public places. And they have to do this in such a way that it does not impede an emphasis on personalized, more intimately useful
    language use. How are some of you others walking this difficult high wire?

  2. Numbers will come up of their own accord. I don’t go for the very specific ones every time, but here’s an example from yesterday. One kid had flown to Seattle to visit relatives over vacation (yes, this is from vacation cards). How many relatives does he have there? 800! Another kid got lots of money for Christmas. How much? $800. (Gave me the chance to chant “what a coincidence”). So that reviews 8 and 100, and I made mistakes as I retold, so kids corrected me. It wasn’t 700 or 80. In each case, it was 800. Big grins. We’ll end up reading these and possibly writing them.

  3. I believe that when I went to a Blaine Ray workshop, he suggested being really specific in our stories and using really specific and absurd numbers. So, when asking kids for the amount of money that someone won in a contest, don’t settle for “ten dollars.” Keep asking them until they find something more unusual, or say something like, “Very close! It was ten dollars and fifty-four cents!”
    We can use unusual and very specific numbers in our stories and not only will it help them learn more numbers, but it will make the stories more interesting. When I did improvisational theatre, they would always tell us “BE SPECIFIC!” And I know that Blaine says this as well. When a trip takes fifty-four minutes and five seconds, it makes you ask, “Wait, why did it take exactly that long?” Whereas when you just say, “The trip took an hour,” information is given but few questions are raised.

  4. More than learning numbers, this is great reminder to not sweat the small stuff when doubt creeps in – as the number thing did the other day. It also includes verb creep – the nagging feeling that they don’t recognize “a pris” took. Uh, oh. Do they know or remember what the present looks like. Thank goodness, they remember the motion! Sometimes I feel like this blog is somehow channeling my classroom and my angst!

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