Why aren’t there more T.P.R.S. teachers?

I’ve been getting emails and tweets from people all over and one of the questions that often comes up is, why are there not more language teachers using T.P.R.S. or other comprehensible input methodologies?

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.  The evidence is in: all you need for second-language acquisition is lots of meaningful, repetitive, interesting comprehensible input– aurally and through reading.  The research is very clear: we do not need to ask for output, do grammar drills, provide grammar feedback, explicitly teach grammar (in any other sense than brief explanations, like “amos goes with “we” in Spanish), ask students to self-reflect on their linguistic skills, etc, to enable students to acquire a language.  In a future series of posts, I am going to summon research that puts the boots to these outmoded practices.  These practices are at best a waste of time and at worst a barrier to acquisition.

But for now, the question remains: how come more teachers don’t use C.I. generally, or T.P.R.S. specifically? 

So here’s a list.  What do you all think?

Adriana Ramirez told me before I started C.I. that I’d need 3 years to make it properly work. I am near the end of year 2 and I couldn’t agree more.  This is a major learning curve…but even done by a beginner, it’s more fun and more effective than anything else.  Now, I am far from the smartest guy in the room, but even I can learn how to teach via comprehensible input.  If I can do it, how come more people don’t?

OK; here we go:

a) Most language teachers are in the 4-5% of people who can learn via direct, grammar-based instruction, and can’t imagine another way.  They thrived in– or survived– the grammar grind, or the “communicative approach,” in high school.  99% of the time, they went to Europe or Japan or wherever after high school, where the amount of input in the language they’d learned was so high that they became fluent, or close to it.  For many of them– many of whom are my District colleagues– high-school is just the “groundwork” for the real world.  Nevermind that most kids won’t ever end up in ____ to “really” learn the language.

These folks basically see it this way: grammar grind/communicative was “real world” preparation; immersion (or Uni) finished off their language skills; this is good enough (or ideal).  We also teach the way we learn– unless we make a strong effort to step out of our mental box– so…

b) Lots of teachers are operating in non C.I.-friendly schools.  If you are the lone wolf– or even if there’s two or three of you– and you have a department, department head or administrator who does not understand, or (more commonly) “believe in,” C.I., it’s tough to kick against the pricks.  This happens in lots of places.  C.I. teachers get badmouthed behind their backs, or openly at department meetings, and since most teachers– especially female teachers, who are socialised to “play nice”– don’t want to ruffle feathers (“come on, team!”-style thinking)– it’s hard for a lot of us to do our own thing.

Thankfully, the Internet keeps us connected.  Yahoo’s moretprs and Ben Slavic’s blog offer community outside school.

This is not to say that life is hostile for all C.I. practitioners– in my department, we agree to disagree, and we get along great– but it’s still harder to innovate if you’re the only one.

c) C.I. doesn’t fit into standard curriculae.  As noted in earlier posts, you cannot change the order of acquisition of grammar .  The only thing you can change is the speed, and the only way you can do that is to provide loads of interesting comprehensible input.  Texts– with their boring “units” and their utterly un-natural ordering of grammar items– are the antithesis of how language is actually acquired.  If a C.I. teacher is forced to “follow” a textbook, C.I. goes out the window.  Anyone who has ever seen the TPRS addendum for the Avancemos textbook knows how stupid, though well-meaning, that addendum, is.

d) Many teachers find it too much work to change over. People who are young are overwhelmed, then they have kids; many of us old farts (and I am one of them) lose their edge.  “I worked for years, my system works, I’m not changing” is what one person flat-out said to me not long ago when I asked them about whether they’d want to try C.I.  I get it.  It’s hard.  The question, I suppose, is philosophical: why, really, are you here?  I like Nietzsche’s way of assessing the “rightness” of a choice (what he calls “the eternal recurrence:” you are doing something right if you could do it an infinite number of times and it would still be interesting. This is what I love about T.P.R.S.: I can never step twice into the same story.

However, when I look back at the work I did pre-TPRS, I am amazed at two things:

1) How MUCH stuff I made, found, put together, modified, etc.

2) How bad my results were

I made a few hundred bingo (and other) games, I made conversation cards, I designed culture projects, I made conversation systems…and at the end of the year the kids still couldn’t say “I like running.”

With T.P.R.S., all I really need are a story outline with my structures (and the props etc), a reading that uses these structures, and a novel.  Indeed, after 20 classes, my kids are reading Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, and their output at the end of the year is MILES ahead of where they used to be (and there are zero management issues).  So…it’s not more work….it’s different work.


e) Most teachers are cautious and conservative by nature (unless they are young, single and on a Pro-D day which ends with alcohol– Ok, I am being facetious here, but you get the point).   We are passing on tradition, we have old-school language teaching hammered into our heads….

f) Institutional and experiential memory is long. I read somewhere that educational research takes from 8-50 years to filter down into shared practice. We still have senior English teachers in my district who give spelling tests fer Gawd’s sake!  (research says this is totally useless).  If you learned via Activity ____ in high school, then you end up back in a high school, doing Activity ____ is an easy default.  95% of teacher learning does not happen during methods class, as all of us except for University education-program designers know. We learn most of our skills in real time, in a real job.  This means you are going to get support, advice, materials etc from established people, and, in languages, that means grammarians and “communicative”-approach people.


g) Standard grammar or communicative teaching works as a “weeder” of students who do not learn via grammar instruction or communicative tasks, which reinforces what most people think– that most people cannot learn languages cos they don’t “work hard enough.” I recently read a great article about Alcoholics Anonymous which pointed out that A.A.’s success rate is abysmal– max 10% of AA attendees stay off the sauce (or whatever) for any length of time– yet its rep is solid because the 90% people for whom it fails don’t go talking about it; the 10% who make it, join, mentor others, speak publicly, etc, and so the “success” rate appears high and the failures are blamed for their failure by those who have succeeded.  According to A.A. boosters, if A.A. works, it’s because of the method; when it fails, it’s the fault of those who failed.  This is like saying “we made a drug that cures ___ 10% of the time, and the other 90% it’s the fault of the patient that the cure did not take.”

If we use Method X, and it works poorly for many students, we could come up with many explanations.  Bad method?  Students who don’t have skills or motivation?  Who knows for sure…but given that anyone and everyone, even the severely mentally challenged, can learn a language, and that most people in the world learn two or more languages without formal teaching, it’s a long shot to say that failure to learn is the kids’ fault.

What we do know is that in Canada, as Netten and Germain (2012) argue in a paper (see bibliography for details), “Core French” (what most kids get: 5-6 hours/week of french from Gr5-Gr11 or so) doesn’t work very well.  Lots of kids drop out, many don’t like it, and those who do finish have poor skills.  The ones who do best tend to be white (and, increasingly, East Asian), wealthier and with more educated parents (the same is broadly true of French Immersion kids).  These are the kids who go on exchange trips to Quebec, whose parents buy them Dora and Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, etc.  Hmmm…anybody see the problem here?

Looking around at various B.C. school districts, what I have heard, over and over, is that generally 75% of kids drop out of languages by grade 12.  If a 1500-kid schools has 8 blocks of French (250 kids) in grade 8 (level 1 for you Yanks), by the time they get to grade 12 often there will only be one or maybe two blocks left (25-50 kids).  Partly this is cos taking a second language is only necessary to the grade 11 level (in B.C. and a few other provinces) for Uni admission purposes.  But you have to wonder.  What if math was taught this way?  What if more than 75% of math students dropped math by grade 12?  There would be an uproar.  National crisis!  We’re losing our edge, bla bla bla.

My guess is that traditional grammar or communicative teaching “weeds out” the kids who don’t naturally learn in those ways, and so the ones who do finish are held up as examples of the “success” of these older methods, which reinforces bias against change:  “Johnny got an A in French 12; that means other kids should also be able to.”

At ____ last year (names have been changed to protect the guilty, heh heh), the TPRS teacher and the dept head (a grammarian and I.B. teacher) each had Intro Spanish. At the end of the year when they had to decide who the “top kids in Spanish” in each section were for award purposes, the TPRS teacher had literally 15 kids per block at an A/A+ level, while the dept head had one.  The TPRS teacher said “it was C.I. that did it” while the department head said something like “a lot of these students [in my class] don’t put in the work or don’t have the skills.” (Same kinds of kids in both groups).  I’ve seen the TPRS results– they’re stellar.  The department head refuses to try C.I., bad-mouths the department’s two C.I. teachers (who by any standard get amazing results), and still maintains that it is student work habits that drive acquisition, not the teaching method.  

Yet, for her, the failure of many kids is a benefit to her: she ends up with the egg-head kids who slave away over grammar when they get to the International Bachelaurate year of language study, and she doesn’t have to change her teaching style, and the kids still do “well enough.”  She would get annihilated in a non-egg-head school.

h) Following a book is easier. In BC, there was a provincial committee 10 years ago that looked at Spanish resources. They allowed Dime (the dumbest book ever made), Avancemos, Paso a Paso, etc, because anybody can go in with those texts, and just follow the instructions. Juntos– which is as good as it gets for the communicative approach– was rejected cos in order to use it, you had to be pretty creative, have reasonable Spanish, be into all kinds of manipulatives and out-of-seat activities, etc.  

In other words, the Ministry of Education and the Board consortium which collectively reviewed Spanish materials wanted a teacher-proof program where anyone could “teach” Spanish.  I get this, sort of– I know loads of people (I am one) who wasn’t Uni-trained in language teaching and had to learn to teach it on the fly– but it’s pretty frikkin’ bad long-term policy.  We like to say “students will rise to our expectations.”  Sure we can expect the same of teachers.  This btw is one of the reasons why A.I.M. is popular: it is so rigidly organised and laid out that you can literally walk in on day 1 and follow the book for an entire year.

i) There’s no real pressure to “succeed” in languages teaching.   One of the ironies of the idiotic, standards-driven U.S. testing mania is that there has been real pressure to figure out what works.  Blaine Ray, T.P.R.S.’s inventor, was fired from his first  and second jobs because his principals wanted better results and higher enrolment.  Ray’s quest for a better method– which began with TPR and then moved into narratives after he read Asher and then Krashen– produced what appears right now to be the best second-languages method.  Canadians have less testing, less accountability– all in my view good things– and, above all, much less inequality than the U.S., which leads to better outcomes for poorer students.  But the price for our ease is a lack of innovation, especially in languages pedagogy.  And too often we can just say “well, those kids didn’t learn French (or whatever) because, well, they weren’t working hard enough.”  People who really need to learn a second language have to take it in Uni, and usually go away to where it’s spoken to pick it up.




  1. Chris,

    You articulate this issue very well…consider it reblogged! It takes a lot of courage to express some of the very valid points that you make. I love the way you fearlessly call it like it is!


  2. I think you have touched on the big elephant in the room. With grammar oriented and communicative methods, students are considered responsible for their failure. Comprehensible input puts that responsibility squarely on the teacher. Anyone can acquire language this way. If students fail, the teacher is responsible. It takes courage to take that on.

    1. This is a really good point. I do however want to qualify this point:

      1. If students are not paying attention, not doing their reading, or not monitoring their comprehension (to get help when they need it), they are basically making choices to lower their grade (and maybe fail). This year for the first time in 4 years of C.I., I have had kids fail Level 1 Spanish for exactly these reasons.

      2. The teacher can present too much vocab, or too much of a variety of vocab, or not be clear enough, or not repetitive enough (etc). This will affect students negatively.

      1. True. Any kid who is paying attention can acquire language through TPRS. Your second point agrees with what I said. If (attentive) students fail to acquire, the teacher is responsible.

  3. If only the evidence were as clear-cut as the blog suggests. e.g. “In language education, analyses of learners in “grammar-free” immersion L2 and FL programmes demonstrated significant shortcomings in the accuracy of their language (Lightbown, Spada, and White, 1993) (N. Ellis article ). CI is great, but most teachers feel CI + some explicit grammar(mnaybe not that much) is even better. The jury remains out.

    1. Steve– I’ll get to a detailed refutation of (most of) Spada, Lightbrown & White (1993)’s claims in a bit. Until then, here are a few notes:

      1. SLW did not account for differences in input quantities between Immersion and native speakers. Yes, Immersion kids have poorer grammar, especially on low-saliency stuff (eg noun genders). They also get literally 1/100th the input that Native speakers do. For example, an Immersion kid– if they get 100% target language input– will get 10-11,000 hours of input during school. A native speaker kid gets that by agre 2 1/2.

      2. There is no evidence that grammar teaching and practice have any effect on acquisition. The only “exception” are explanations. I someone learns that –ait means “used to/would…”, they will understand input better (which will improve acquisition). Beyond that, I havn’t seen any data showing benefits for grammar teaching in either L1 or L2. “After a three-year study comparing the effects of traditional grammar, transformational grammar and no grammar on high school students in New Zealand, researchers concluded that, “English grammar, whether traditional ortransformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical secondary students.” (Elley, Barham, Lamb and Whylie, pp. 17-18, (1976))” is typical.

      3. We know that native speakers of English don’t say things like “I enjoy to run.” Yet most cannot formulate the “rule” that makes this statement ungrammatical, or can only formulate it with tons of reflection. Yet they use the “rule” correctly and have never been taught the rule. Conversely, language learners who receive direct instruction in the grammar of the target language frequently make errors despite knowing– and being able to explain how to apply– the rule.

      This suggests that knowing grammar rules is both unnecessary and ineffective, and that accurate language performance is not a function of conscious awareness.

      4. Anyone who makes the “grammar teaching/practice works” argument should take a close read of this: https://tprsquestionsandanswers.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/another-nail-in-the-grammarian-and-communicative-coffin/


      1. We can all cherry-pick evidence to suit our pre-conceived view. The Norris and Ortgega metastudy is often quoted as evidence that explicit grammar teaching improves accuracy. Writers such as R. Ellis, as well as Lightbown and Spada, after looking at all the evidence, think some focus on form is useful (I assume more than what TPRS recommends). Are you sure about the 10000 + hours of input in school? Is it not much less? 2-3 hours a week?

        Regrading point 4, the casual reader of this blog might do better to look at less biased sources too.

        Regarding point 3, you seem to assume that an L1 learner is identical to an L2 learner. This is a huge assumption with which most researchers and reachers would not agree.

        We have debated this a number of times before, Chris. CI purists are at one end of a broad spectrum of conscious/unconscious learning. Remember that the distinction between acquisition and learning is a Krashen hypothesis, which remains both unproven and unfalsifiable. He always says that all the evidence supports it, but one could also claim that for L2 learners CI + focus on form alwyas produces acquisition too. No longitudinal, robust studies comparing CI with CI + have ever been done, have they?

      2. …We can all cherry-pick evidence to suit our pre-conceived view…

        Good point, Steve, so let’s leave research out of it and just go with anecdotes. I can teach ALL students when I follow CI principles, but I can’t with explicit focus on grammar. With the former, I retain more students; with the latter, I end up with very few by the end.

        We can’t unlearn or unexperience something. Your experience is different from Chris’ and mine. How have you measured your own success?

      3. This has been my experience also. More kids do better, and like Spanish more, when I use pure C.I. than when I teach grammar.

        The results category on this blog shows what C.I. does.

      4. I’m not sure I want to boast about successes really. I always make the point clearly that I strongly believe in CI supplemented by a significant focus on form. My students thrived on that on the whole and enjoyed their French lessons.

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