What do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences? (❤️ and one heartwarming TPRS story ❤️)

Every year when I start with beginners, I ask the kids, how come you chose Spanish, as opposed to Punjabi, French or any of the online options?    The responses are revealing. Note:  at our school, I get Spanish kids as beginners (level 1) who are generally in 10th or 11th grade.  Before that, they have done one of the following (some at our school and some elsewhere):

  • Core French (regular classroom French– 75 minutes/day for a five-month semester-long course) in 8th & 9th grade
  • Core French in 8th grade, then they dropped it and didn’t take a language in 9th grade
  • no language, because they are/were E.S.L. from another country originally
  • no language because they had learning support
  • Punjabi or Hindi as a heritage language (they already speak it, so basically learn reading & writing)
  • they come from another school, and I have no idea what they took there but most likely a bit of French

Today’s question: what do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences?  

  • “We learned a lot of rules but they were hard to remember.”
  • “I could remember the rules but not what they meant.”  I asked this kid more and she said “like you can remember to [conjugate a verb] but you don’t know what it means when you do it.”
  • “It was boring”
  • “I liked the language but I couldn’t speak it.”
  • “I liked speaking it but I couldn’t write it.”
  • “I didn’t like talking.”
  • “It was confusing.”
  • (from a very bright kid I have in English 11, who still takes French): “In grade 8, I could speak a bit of French after like two months.  But they just keep adding rules.  You have to remember all these rules when you talk and write. Now in Grade 11 I am constantly thinking how I should talk.  So I can only talk when I practice with my partner.  But then she [the teacher] puts us with a different partner and you have to rewrite your dialogue.”

We have to also remember that the kids I get are the ones for whom grammar or traditional communicative teaching doesn’t work.  A lot of kids keep on with French, Punjabi, German, Chinese etc and the teaching works well enough for them.  We also need to remember that teachers (at least all of the ones I know and work with) are incredibly hard-working and caring.  I spent 11 years going to workshops, often with my colleagues, and I can tell you that 95% of teachers (and all of my colleagues) work their butts off.  My colleagues are constantly revising, fiddling, etc.  These are not phone-it-in teachers using twenty-five year old lessons.  So we must conclude that methods don’t always work even if the teachers are working super-hard.

Now TPRS won’t solve all the problems, but it will address some of them.  How?

a) we don’t force kids to remember and regurgitate rules.

b) we focus on meaning, not grammar; we discuss grammar only to clarify meaning

c) We use stories– which have suspense and weirdness– and personalisation to keep things interesting

d) we don’t expect speech from beginners, or from those who are self-conscious.  Speech from kids is like, you’re on your way to buy an nice espresso in the morning, and you find a $2 coin on the sidewalk: it’s great, we love it, but we we don’t expect it and we’re grateful when it happens.

e) we immediately clarify all ambiguities, because we know, from forty years of research (and that awful feeling we get in our get when we are confused) that acquisition stops when we don’t understand.

f) we restrict writing (and speaking) to only what we have taught (a.k.a. sheltering subject matter).

Now, I’m definitely the world’s worst T.P.R.S. teacher.  I totally suck.  I mean, on a scale of “sucks a bit” to “sucks a lot,” I’m so far off the scale I can’t even see it.  I have screwed up PLENTY.  I have introduced too much vocab.  I have assigned grammar-based homework.  I got reluctant beginners to talk during P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers).  I have sometimes not stopped to clarify meaning.  I have built stories around grammar.  If a T.P.R.S. mistake can be made, I have made it.

That said, for me, T.P.R.S. is working better than Juntos (communicative) or ¡Díme!(grammar-grind) teaching, because I am slowly bringing my work into line with research and the classroom practices that Blaine Ray, Ben Slavic, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Susan Gross and others have developed, and I am sucking slightly less every year.  I get increased enrolment, zero management issues, happier kids, MUCH better output of all kinds, plus class is fun, all marks are higher, and the weakest kids can succeed.  Mostly, I attribute this to what T.P.R.S. lets us do:  stay in the target language most of the time.  The kids hear probably 20x the Spanish they used to– and they listen and read more.

❤️ Now, here is something heartwarming.  ❤️ When I finished teaching my first semester of TPRS, my student Jack K.came and thanked me for switching from the grammar grind to TPRS.  Jack had my awful trad teaching in Level 1, and TPRS for level 2.

I told him, thank Blaine Ray, not me.  So, Jack wrote to Blaine.  Here is their conversation:

“My name is Jack K., I am a 17 year old student at Tamanawis. And for the last two years I’ve been taking Spanish classes, I’m glad to say I did quite well because of your program.

The first year I arrived to Surrey from my native Quebec, I was offered to take Spanish class (because French was too easy) which I accepted. The class was very different but i enjoyed it thoroughly because I love languages. The only problem is that it didnt feel natural, it felt like a struggle, regardless of my teachers efforts, I found it hard to approach as did everyone else in my class, Mr Stolz had been teaching languages for years, but hes approach seemed rough edged, so the first year I did average getting around 70% , when I totally knew I could do better, because French is very similar to Spanish and I really wanted to progress.

The next year I took Spanish class again, but this time something was very different, Mr Stolz’s whole approach on the subject was different, it felt natural, and as the semester progressed I learnt way more then I ever thought I would, to the point where I was forgetting basic things in both French and English. So the second time around was just great, it went very smoothly, I did very well In the end, which sparked interests in languages I didn’t know I had. and literally on the last day of school, I spoke with Mr Stolz for a while and the topic of your program came up, (he spoke about your program quite often) and I told him how easy it felt the second time around, and I was really grateful, because I now want to get a minor degree in Spanish later on (which I didn’t want to do at first). Mr Stolz insisted on me thanking you personally for your program, because it actually helped a lot of people including me. So thank you so very much dude.”   — sincerely, Jack K.

Then Blaine wrote back:

“Thanks for your wonderful email. What a great response. I am so grateful that you were able to learn this way. What a great thing that you are now planning to minor in Spanish. Thanks so much for sharing.” — Blaine Ray

So I hope that when I hand my kids off to their college or Uni Spanish profs, they are happy with what I tried to give them.

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4 comments

  1. Great post! It resonates on so many levels with me. More importantly, you have encouraged me to continue on my TPRS/CI journey even though I too am way off that ‘sucks a lot’ scale! It’s about recognising the positives – something I need to start doing more of! Thanks and keep blogging!

    1. Thanks. Adriana Ramírez said it would take three years to get good at this. She was right. Hang in there– even amateurish TPRS kicks the communicative approach, or the grammar grind, in its ass 😉

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