Why did Blaine Ray develop TPRS?

I spoke with Blaine Ray in Oct 2013 in Portland and asked him some questions.

Ray began teaching Spanish in the late 1970s in Idaho. He was at a school where he was under pressure to increase enrolment in Spanish.  He failed, was fired, and found another job, from which he was also fired for not having enough enrolment and retention. 

After starting his third job– and by now married with three kids– Ray enrolled in U of O and started combing through library stacks, where he found James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) in 1980. TPR involves the teacher saying a word in the target language and performing an action which represents the word, the action being repeated by students. They can also say the word while repeating the action.

TPR worked better than anything else Ray had tried. Students remembered MUCH more Spanish than before. However, Ray ran into problems. First, there was ambiguity. If a student learned that “se levanta” (gets up) went with the action of standing up, great. But what if you wanted to say “got up” or “will get up”? Do you modify the gestures, or add other gestures to indicate time? This gets confusing.

The second problem was, how to teach the various forms– I, you, she, he, we, they, you guys– using TPR. If “se levanta” goes with standing up, how do we indicate that I stand up? That we stand up?

At about this time Ray read Krashen’s Principles and Practices and decided to make his class 100% comprehensible, so he just wrote the meanings of words on the board. He had also always been interested in stories, so he began experimenting with narrating stories, asking questions about what was happening, and having student actors (and props, realia, etc) act out what was happening. All the while, Ray would ask the actors what they were doing.

In about 1990 Ray met Susan Gross, who developed the “circling” questioning technique. Circling boosted TPRS’ effectiveness because it allowed students to hear hundreds of repetitions of words. When circling, the teacher makes a statement using the “structure” being taught. Say, “wants to drive.” The teacher says the sentence. Then, questions– all of which use the words “wants to drive” are asked, and answered by the class chorally with sí/no or one-word answers. “Class, does Johnny want to drive? Yes, class, Johnny wants to…does Johnny want to drive a Ferrari? No, Johnny does not want…”

Ray’s comic bent led him to using bizarre, personalised details to “colour” his stories. Characters had 37 cats and 26 brothers, which were few…because their friends all had 99 brothers! This “weirdness” is funny, but has the profoundly important effect of getting students to laugh and pay attention, increasing acquisition.

Ray’s reading of Krashen, whose research showed that reading was essential to language acquisition, led him to look for interesting reading material for students. Finding none, he began writing simple novels for high-school students, such as “Pobre Ana,” about a girl’s exhange-student experience in Mexico.

With the development of good reading materials, Ray’s TPRS “basics” were done, and his students did well, many of them acing AP exams, and enjoying his classes.

The litmus test came in 1996 or so, at a conference for teachers put on by TPR developer James Asher. Asher invited Ray to demonstrate his method, and Ray brought two students. In front of two hundred teachers, Ray narated a story (in past tense), the students acted (and answered Ray’s questions in the present tense), and Ray asked the audience– the “class”– questions.

The audience enjoyed Ray’s presentation, and when he finished, a teacher said “looks great, but all they have to do is answer simple questions and listen. Can they actually speak on their own? Could one of them, for example, tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Spanish?”

Ray asked one of his student actors if she knew the story, and she said “yes, but not in Spanish.” Ray told her to go ahead, and she did, narrating the folktale using two past tenses for narration and the present tense for dialogue. Because she didn’t know the word for “wolf,” she used “el perro malo” (the mean dog), and in place of Little Red Riding Hood, she used “la chica roja” (the red girl).

When she finished, the audience clapped loudly and then the teacher who had requested the folktale said “that’s the best Spanish I’ve ever heard from an Advanced Placement [AP– fourth or fifth year] student.”

“I’m not in AP,” said the student, “I’m in second year.”

Ray began getting requests from various school boards for workshops explaining his methods. When Susan Gross told him “Blaine, you’re awesome, but you can’t really explain what you are doing,” he decided, along with publisher Contee Seely, to write a book, which Stephen Krashen edited, entitled “FLUENCY THROUGH TPR STORYTELLING” (now in its 6th edition). Ray told me that part of his initial impetus was to clarify for himself what he had taken years to develop, one experiment at a time.

In 2000, after missing twenty-four of the first forty-eight teaching days due to being away giving workshops, Ray retired, and began devoting himself full-time to teaching his method.

A relentless innovator, Ray started volunteer teaching Spanish one day a week at his local high school, mentoring the teachers there, all the while refining his craft with his bizarre stories. To this day, at age 62, Ray continues to innovate and volunteer teach every Monday, his latest “ah-ha!” discovery being Laurie Clarq’s “embedded reading” strategy.

Ray wanted real acquisition, not kids who could fill out worksheets and merely stutter through rehearsed dialogues, and he wanted himself and the kids to have FUN in class. Given TPRS’ positive research results (12 studies as of July 2012), positive reception among students and innovative teachers, and potential for modification and extension, it would seem mission accomplished.

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