Q: Do methods for teaching languages need updating?
A: DUH. As Blaine Ray put it, “if we find a way to make TPRS better, we will change it.”
The first broadly-used comprehensible input-based languages method in the US– TPRS– has enjoyed both enormous success and substantial revision, both by Ray and his crew, and by outsiders.
In the last few years, two newish C.I. methods have landed in the U.S. and Canada: Story Listening (developed by Beniko Mason) and the ideas broadly called “untargeted” comprehensible input– UCI– developed by Ben Slavic, Tina Hargaden, me and others. UCI– a term not everybody uses– has taken bits of TPRS and modified or added to them. Things such as Calendar Talk (or my version thereof), Card Talk (the artist formerly known as “Circling With Balls”), One Word Images etc have been added to (or have replaced) TPRS-style stories.
What has been loosely called “UCI” was developed because– as with every technique in teaching– not everybody could make “classical” TPRS work for them in their specific situation. Your kids, your department, the standardised exams you might have, your school’s socioeconomic status, your sense of humour, your flexibility, your creativity, bla bla: these might affect how well a method works for you and your students.
So people innovated. And now, you can go to C.I. demos and acquire bits of a language via classical TPRS, new-wave UCI, or Story Listening. I use all three, by the way: I loooooves me some OWIs, I do card/calendar talk, I like old-school TPRS, and every Friday I do Story Listening.
I have had the chance to learn bits of many languages via TPRS. I remember learning some Russian in Victoria a few years ago. To this day, I can hear it in my head: Maykl yest velosiped. Maykl khochet velosipedo. Velosipedy vpechatlyayut devushek. “Mike wants a bike. Mike has bikes. Bikes impress girls.” TPRS does that with language: it makes it stick.
Does UCI work? We don’t (yet) know. We do know some teachers like it. We have anecdotes. So, I thought I’d some experience it for myself! It being Fall and so conference season, I had the pleasure of attending some Pro-D which involved acquiring a language– Bréag–which is unlike English but is written with our alphabet. I spent a total of 6 hrs over three days acquiring Bréag.
The challenges (ie non-Englishy aspects) of Bréag include
- no cognates
- SOV word order
- consonants regularly change sounds they make, or don’t make any sounds
- consonants appear in words sometimes and not in others and slightly change pronunciation of the word
- unmarked noun gender
- “conjugation” of prepositions
So, it’s very hard to pronounce, and you cannot guess at meanings unless the words are between names of people or places. On the upside, no verb endings etc.
My experiences acquiring other languages via C.I. have included Story Listening and TPRS. In TPRS, there is close focus on a limited set of vocab, and as much repetition as is possible without making things boring. In S.L., you get to see/hear a story being told, and then you read it.
Our teacher was a wonderful, warm person who is fluent in Bréag. She knew to go slow, translate when necessary etc. IE she was very good at making things comprehensible. In three days, we did the following:
- made an OW and put it into a story (over 3 days)
- did Calendar Talk (every day)
- did Card Talk (ditto)
- used Write and Discuss at the end of each class
Q: How did it work?
The class was fun. Lots of laughing. I was very happy to acquire bits of a language I hadn’t learned. I came away with a few new words! Also, the bizarre word order and other weird grammar stuff felt natural within about 20 min as the brain adjusted. 😁😁
As with any method, your UCI mileage may vary: every teacher, student and class is different. This is what I noticed in my UCI class that I would change.
1. The vocabulary load was way too high. At the end of our first two-hour class, 32 words had been introduced (none cognates). Second class, 16 more, third class 14 more, to 62. (This works out to about 10 words/hour. If this was a high-school class, we would have been on track to using almost 1,000 words in one year.)
I found that I simply could not remember the meanings of even close to all the words. I had to guess at words sandwiched between or near other words that I (thought I) knew, and by constantly looking at the board or at a steadily-growing forest of posters crammed with vocab.
2. There was far too little repetition. Partly because “circling”– asking varied questions about a sentence, in order to repeat it– is not emphasised in UCI, I found sentences introduced, and then poof! another would come along shortly after, with no or minimal repetition.
Because of the vocab load and the lack of repetition, I was lost about 25 min. into Day 1. and I had to constantly ask “what does ____ mean?” Now, I was a keen learner, so stayed focused, but I am not sure that a typical 8th grader would have been as tuned-in as I was.
I wanted to hear fewer sentences repeated more. I never had Ben Slavic’s “invisible ka-thunk” moment when the language just…felt 100% automatically easy to understand.
3. Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring. In Card Talk, the teacher discusses student interests drawn on the name cards they have on their desks. Eg, if a kid has a picture of a basketball, you are supposed to talk about basketball. (eg You play basketball. Do you like it? Who plays it? Where? Do you play with Big Bird or Kobe?, etc). In Calendar Talk, discussion revolves around who did/is doing/will do what and when.
Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring, because, basically, I just didn’t care that Mike liked wine and Carmen didn’t. I also assumed that they didn’t really care whether or not I liked wine. I also was not especially interested in what people had done the evening before. Now yes, we got to “practice,” but this wasn’t especially compelling. Also, none of us could properly speak Bréag, so I’m not sure how useful the input was for the rest of us.
This is making me rethink how much PQA I do. One or two questions is loads. Better might be classical TPRS: just question the actors, because they have interesting situations and people don’t need to talk to acquire language.
What I noticed after about five hours: I could only really remember the story. I could not remember the words from Calendar or Card . I think this was because there was much more repetition of the story (because on days 2 and 3 we had a recap of previous bits of story) than in Card/Calendar Talk. I also found the story much more interesting than hearing about the weather or food or what Consuela did last night for 15 min.
My lesson here, again: put more stuff in stories and less into intro activities.
4. The presentation of One Word Images (OWIs) was not repeated (memorable) enough. We made a three headed vacuum that loved to argue with itself. I loooove OWIs and so do kids (I am basically a small child 😁😁, thank you Ben Slavic for OWIs and Invisibles), and the process was fun. But I also found that, because circling and repetition is discouraged in UCI, once we got our OWI into its story, there wasn’t enough repetition of Q&A to remember the vocab (and there was a LOT of vocab).
The lesson for me: use native speakers/fast processors to speak for the OWI, add human actors, and, yes, figure out ways to repeat the sentences. Circling is not a dirty verb.
5. There was no repetition of dialogue. The story we made with our OWI had almost no dialogue.
Breag like French Spanish etc has a lot of different verb endings. I didn’t get to hear or read nearly enough of these because the stories had almost no dialogue.
6. Write and Discuss was distracting. This is a technique where basically teacher writes & kids copy what was done in class (eg OWI details, story, etc), and while so doing, discussion about the sentences happens. I did W&D this year and I enjoyed it and my kids didn’t complain.
But…does it work as well/easily as…just reading something that re-uses the vocab from the day’s OWI/story/Card Talk? In my experience, no. Here is what me-as-student found challenging about W&D:
- I’m not sure writing (eg copying) helped me remember anything. And before you Google “does hand writing help us remember?” articles, and get 1,000 “yes!” answers, note that those studies refer to conscious learning and fact retention.
- I would much rather have been given something to read, and some basic questions. I found the constant switching between reading, copying and questions (and English) tiring, and I never really got into the groove of enjoying understanding. With just reading (or listening) and dealing with questions, you have fewer energy-draining attention-switchers.
- Some ppl (eg me) were very slow copy-and-understanders. Others were ultra-quick. So while slow me was copying away, others were either waiting for Sluggish Stolzie, or there was discussion going on which I couldn’t follow and whose English bits were distracting.
There was a BVP show recently where The Diva was asked about note-taking and writing down meanings of words. He said that his concern was that this would get students to rely on conscious memory as much as on processing input.
So, overall, I’m gonna hafta rethink whether or not– and how– to use W&D. My feeling right now is, reading (with old-school comp. questions, or done volleyball-style, or just…reading!) will work as well as W&D.
7. There was far too much visual clutter. Because the vocab load was so high, and there was relatively little repetition, our teacher wrote things on giant Post-Its. And by the middle of Day Two, it took 5-10 seconds to sort through the word-ocean and find what you didn’t understand. My conviction– less is much more– was reconfirmed for both vocab and wall/board visuals. If you have to see it written to remember it, you havn’t acquired it.
At the end of the presentation, I talked to an experienced C.I. teacher, and told them that I didn’t feel like I had learned much (compared to what I had picked up in TPRS demos). They said “TPRS is for in-the-moment acquisition. UCI is something that works over time.” Hmmm. Maybe they were right. But I can tell you, I have had consistent success with focused, TPRS-style input, and with UCI– at least the way it worked in the demo– I didn’t feel at all successful.
A few weeks after this, I was on YouTube and chanced across my Breag teacher. What struck me was, she was saying words I distinctly remember from class, but I had no idea what they meant. To me, that is not successful teaching.
This made me think, how well would this work for kids? I don’t know, but I do know how I felt. And I resolved to use less vocab and to repeat it more, do much less calendar and card talk, to mostly abandon Write and Discuss, and to focus on stories.