What should teachers tell kids about language learning methods?

Mark Koopman, an E.S.L. teacher and school organiser in Japan, asked about what we T.P.R.S. teachers tell our students when they come into our classroom.  Today’s question:

What should languages teachers tell their students about language learning?

My overall answer to this is, you tell them how people learn languages, and you lay out class expectations.

a)  My course outline (for Spanish) has this in it.  I read it to the kids and briefly talk about it

“People can only learn languages by getting comprehensible input—that means, they hear language they can understand (with translation, gestures, etc). They need to hear that language over and over, with variations, so they can pick it up and not be bored by it. They also need to read the language in comprehensible form.

 There will be no grammar worksheets, grammar notes, vocab quizzes or games built around grammar devices in this class. Contribute, pay attention, and learn!”

I don’t blather on at any length about this.  I want the kids to know they can easily learn, and don’t have to worry.  I also quote Blaine Ray: “I teach stories, and my stories always have a surprise.”  This year we started our first story 30 min after I first met the kids.

When I hear from Americans, a lot of teachers say their kids looooove worksheets and other legacy methods, and that it is a challenge getting “buy-in” from kids. I have not had this problem, partly because Canada is less insane than the U.S. (less poverty and classism affecting kids’ schooling, way less standardised testing, and much greater teacher autonomy), but mostly because if you run your class rigorously– what Ben Slavic calls “norming their behaviour”– they will succeed, and people who succeed are generally happy.

When I do get asked questions about methods, I refer people to the research. I also ask the kids “are you understanding everything?” They always say “yes,” and then I say “the more you hear and read it, the more you’ll remember, and eventually you’ll just automatically be able to say and write things.”

I also ask them “if you took another language before you started Spanish, how was it?” and I get a few responses, detailed here, and I then tell them “if you listen and read, and ask when you don’t understand, you will pick this up.”  Again I don’t spend a ton of time on this, as it’s mostly for my own interest.

b) Any teacher has to lay out some ground rules.  Mine are the classic T.P.R.S. rules, which I learned from the amazing Michelle Metcalfe:

— English only for places and names

— no blurting: only one person talks

— humour!

— ask for help

— eyes on teacher, sit up straight, no distractions

Buenas palabras — good words– “would you say it to Mom?”

c) I have had a few parents ask me about T.P.R.S., as their kids’ experiences with languages are so totally different in a comprehensible-input classroom than in others. I always ask them “does Johnny find it easy, and feel like he is learning?” I have never had a “no” answer. I also say “while this seems weird sometimes, it seems to keep the kids engaged,” and I also tell the parents to look at their kids’ writing assessments. This last always lets the kids impress their Mom and Dad.

As Robert Harrell (I think) said on Ben’s, “if you feel like you have to criticise me, look at my results, and if you wonder about my results, look at my methods.” I have never had to do this: kids getting T.P.R.S. find it easy, develop massive and very visible skills, and feel safe and capable in class.

There have obviously been some public arguments (e.g. recently on the A.C.T.F.L. forum) about what constitutes best practices. One thing is clear: people who teach with c.i. need to make sure they explain their methods– and the brain research behind them– to students, parents, colleagues and others.

But the bottom line, as always, is the kids. In a T.P.R.S. class, they can learn, and they generally like learning, another language.

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