Why do T.P.R.S. teachers overpractice everything?

One feature of a T.P.R.S. classroom– especially during story-asking– is an apparently insane amount of repetition. The teacher is constantly asking questions such as “is there a boy?” and “are the boys dancing in the rain?”. We also use parallel characters to get even more repetitions on vocab.

Now, we know that the more we hear something that we understand, the more we acquire it. But, as it turns out, there is another very good reason to “overpractice” things.

In research done in Colorado, scientists basically did two things while watching subjects learn new skills (here, using a mechanical arm to move objects around). First, they showed that as people practiced more, they used progressively less energy to get a task done. Mastery was defined as, they could do the task with way less energy than they started (i.e. they got more efficient), they could correctly do it, and they could do it quickly and without thinking (little conscious focus).

Secondly– and more interestingly– they showed that once subjects had mastered the task but kept on doing it, their energy expenditure for doing the task kept dropping, while the subjects were unaware of this process. In other words, the subjects got better at the task without realising they were getting better.

When I told some professional musician friends about this, one guy immediately said “amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

The implications for the languages classroom are enormous and I’m only starting to think about this. (Of course, Mr Intuition himself, Blaine Ray, figured this out twenty-five years ago– now science backs Papa Blaine up on it):

A) “overmastery” should be the goal. We want to make it so that first, students understand without any thinking or pauses. And second, we want them to be able to quickly and easily and unselfconsciously and fluently “spit out” responses to questions, or statements describing things, or questions, orally or in writing.

B) the reason we want this, as the article shows, is that once we have “overmastery,” we are using both much less mental bandwidth and less energy to process the “known” (acquired) stuff, which, crucially, frees mental processing power for newer input.

This last point’s importance cannot be overstated. You want as much “open mind” as possible available for what you are now learning. The more mental clutter you have– unconscious self-talk along the lines of wait, what does that mean? What did he say? How do I say ____ again?— the less energy and mental room you have for new stuff.

C) if you think mental processing power is unlimited, read The User Illusion. Norestranders shows that since about 98% of mental processing is unconscious, we have very limited opportunities for conscious input, and it follows from this that the more we limit the variety of input, and “smooth out” the mind’s unconscious operations– by “automatising” them with practice– the easier it will be to acqure new stuff.

It occured to me that this could potantially be a “communicative” teacher’s argument for yet more student talk in the languages class–“the research obviously says they have to practice”– but this is probably not the case. The reason for this is that practice, in the languages classroom, is literally 90%+ listening and reading. The more we listen and read, the more automatic the language becomes. Blaine Ray was asked at a workshop whether the actors in stories acquired more than the rest of class (most T.P.R.S. teachers seem to have a regular crew of actors) and he said “no.” You don’t learn (much) by talking; you learn a ton by listening.

D) If we “overmaster” the seven basic “power verbs,” we can do pretty much anything even with limited vocab. Has, is, wants, needs, goes, likes/loves, gives/receives I am betting will get 80% of the needed work done in any language. So if students have these automatised, they have some really good “real world” prep (a point made by Jim Tripp on Ben’s).

Musical analogy:

When I started with Irish music, every new tune was major labor. But I went to sessions weekly and after awhile they became faster and faster to learn. (My first-year goal was two tunes/week and I almost did it– I’d hear something awesome, ask its name, then look the music up online and practice at home). The learning became quicker because a) my fingers got the moves wired and b) I started to internalise the scales and rhythms. Irish is mostly in mixolydian and dorian, so the classically-trained and rock guy (me) will naturally play a C# instead of C natural in a mix tune. Eventually I just naturally unthinkingly started hitting the dimished 7ths of the mix and dor scales

Once you play (and listen) enough, the input soaks in and you stop making certain kinds of mistakes. You also subconsciously note tune and bar similarities and you find yourself going “well the B part of Scatter the Mud is more or less like The Noonday Feast except with a mix 3rd” or whatever.

And when these things start happening– when finger movement and scales (what’s “in” and what’s “out”) get automatised– acquisition of tunes becomes easier and quicker. Indeed, I now mostly learn purely by listening, and only occasionally look at sheet music.

Another interesting effect: the more “wired in”– automatised– tunes become, the more you can experiment on them. I still remember playing Cooley’s, a tune I’d played a hundred times at least, and finding myself playing triplets– hard on mando– because I had the tune so wired in that my brain could now explore a new music trick.

I also remember the exact moment I acquired the Spanish subjunctive. After a month of lessons, lots of travel and work, on a sunny day waiting for a bus near Huehuetenango, Guatemala, a guy asked me “when is the bus coming” and I said “espero que venga pronto.”. If the input is there and you get it, the more of the basics you unthinkingly do, the more easily the non-English stuff comes.

Anyway, the analogy’s point: the more you solidify the basics, the easier anything subsequent becomes. Luckily for us, T.P.R.S. allows us zillions of reps because stories– especially with multiple parallel characters– accomodate repetition without boredom because the language is the container, not the content: we teach stories with language, not language with grammar.


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