Month: January 2016

T.P.R.S. or…whatever? More Evidence for the Effectiveness of Comprehensible Input

I have documented TPRS kids’ success in the past (see this) but today we are in for a different kind of treat: we are going to look first at what top students can do with traditional methods (forced output, grammar practice, word lists, memorisation, etc) and then with comprehensible input.

Today, totally by accident, I found my old Spanish 2 binder from when I was a traditional methods teacher using the ¡Juntos Dos! program.  One of my old Level 2 final projects was to create a children’s book.  The kids generally used themselves as characters.   This story was written by Nuvjit S.

Nuvjit was a keen language learner in high school, and has since then acquired Japanese. She was the top student in Spanish in her year.   For this project, the kids got editing help from me, they could use dictionaries, etc. Here is Nuvjit’s children’s book. This was the best project of its kind that I got that year.  So take a look at what I was able to get done with traditional methods.  This is second year Spanish.


Now, let’s take a look at what a kid taught with only comprehensible input methods can do.

This is Neha D.’s story. She is one of the top five or six students from this year.  This was done today, in 50 minutes, with no notes or dictionary.  First draft.  No editing.  Neha is Nuvjit, ten years later, with  Spanish teaching based on what we know the brain needs to acquire language: tons of compelling comprehensible input, in aural and written form.

Neha has never seen a grammar worksheet, a verb conjugation table or an explanation of how the pretérito  differs from the imperfecto.  She has never had her work corrected, and she has never “reflected on her learning,” or fiddled with a portfolio.  She probably can’t even tell you what a verb is and she has never heard the word “conjugate.”

This is first year Spanish.


So…it’s pretty obvious which method works better…for me, and for these students.  Your mileage may vary.

Now let me also be clear here:  I was a pretty bad communicative teacher.  I didn’t get good results (well, I couldn’t get my kids to have awesome results).  There were– and are– loads of people better than me in that tradition.  So I am pretty sure that any number of people could have gotten better results.  I’m also at best a slowly-improving T.P.R.S. practitioner, and there are loads of people who get better results than me.

This however is also my post’s silver lining:  if I was a bad “communicative” teacher and I’m a marginal (but improving) T.P.R.S. practitioner, my kids are getting more out of the class with T.P.R.S.

At bottom, I don’t attribute Neha’s success to me being smart or a good teacher, or to how funny I am– err, try to be– etc.  Neha and her classmates’ success ultimately stems from T.P.R.S., Movietalk, etc, allowing us to remain comprehensibly in the target language for huuuuuge amounts of time.

Useful Vocab is Useless

What should language teachers teach? And how should teachers prepare students for “hard” tests like say the French or Spanish A.P. exam?

  • Some say “task-based” stuff, where you learn vocab, necessary grammar and verbs etc to get a specific job done.  This seems pretty obvious: if I’m going to France, I am going to need to order food, so we had better do a unit on food, restaurants, ordering, money etc.
  • Some (including me) suggest teaching starting with the most-used words in a language (which by definition includes unsheltered grammar from the beginning).
  • A few dinosaurs suggest grammar rules.

I’ll be controversial here and say that “real world” prep and teaching “useful” vocabulary etc is not what we should be doing.  If we want to prepare students for the “real” world and teach them “useful” vocab etc, we should avoid “preparation” and “usefulness.”  I agree with Nicole Naditz’ idea…but for very different reasons.  Why?

First, as Bill VanPatten noted in one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, we don’t prepare people for specific “real-world” situations.  Rather, we teach them to cope.  Since we can’t anticipate what will happen after/outside class, and even if we could there’s way too much necessary vocab to be learned to deal with possible situations, and since single unknown words can throw us off our carefully-practiced restaurant (or whatever) interactions, what we should be doing is giving people as much understanding and as many tools as possible to get language work done.

Here is a standard student response to a typical “communicative” task: practice using restaurant and food vocabulary in a “realistic” situation.  Of course, the kids wrote a script.   They are learning the vocab, and naturally have not yet acquired it, and so they write it down to try to remember (“quick can we do our oral test before we forget?” they say).           The usual problems with “communicative” tasks apply here: junky output becomes junky input for other learners, it’s what Bill VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” as opposed to language, most of the time “preparing” it was probably spent giggling in English about the humour of two gangsters arguing over pizza, etc.

The biggest problem, though, is its usefulness.   When the kids “perform” this for their teacher, one misremembered line will throw the whole thing off.   And if either of them ever gets to France, what happens if the server doesn’t say commander? What if s/he says qu’est-ce que vous voulez?  This– in context– won’t matter that much.  It’s pretty obvious that the server is asking what you want.

The real question here is, was this activity acquisition-building?  Since it’s output-focused, full of junky language, rehearsed etc, the answer is no. The best tools, in language as in carpentry, are those that are simple and versatile.  In terms of bang-for-buck this is super low-value.  If we spent two periods creating, rehearsing and then “performing” these dialogues, that’s 120 minutes where the kids could have been reading/listening to input.  If you were dead set on teaching them food vocab, you could have done Movietalk or Picturetalk about restaurants, or done a story.  But the acquisitive value of output is very limited.

This is where high-frequency vocab comes in.  Starting with what Terry Waltz has called the “super seven” verbs– to have, be, be located, want, need, go, like and want– and using high-frequency vocab, we give learners the “flexible basics” for “real world” situations. You might not know the French for “I would like to buy a train ticket for Lyons,” but if you can use high-frequency vocab at the ticket booth– “I want to go to Lyons”– you’ll be fine.  (train, ticket and to buy are relatively low-frequency words).

Terry Waltz made a similar argument recently.  She asked us to imagine buying copper wire and pliers (low-frequency vocabulary) in a foreign country.  Now, what is more important?  Knowing how to say “do you have?” or knowing the words for “copper wire” and “pliers”?  If you can say “do you have…?” (a very high-frequency expression), it is relatively easy to point, gesture, use a dictionary etc to learn the words for “copper wire” and “pliers.”

Second, most “real world” (i.e. situation-specific) vocab is almost always available in context.  You think you need to know forty Spanish words for food?  No you don’t– when in Colombia or Spain, look at the menu!  Can’t say “towel” in Hindi? If you know mujhee jaruurat hai (“I want to buy…”), you can point at a towel, and the kaparwallah will beam, tell you what the word is and also maybe offer you chai.  Don’t know how to say “buy” and “ticket” and “first class” in French? Go to the train station and if you can say j’aimerais aller à Lyons, you’ll be fine.  You’ll learn…and in all of these cases, because the words are associated with movement, other speakers, images, sights, sounds etc, there’s a good chance you’ll remember their meanings and eventually just spit them out.

Third, we have the problem of, basically, who cares about future “payoffs”?  Most of our students won’t end up in China or Mexico or wherever.  Should we assume that sufficient motivation for them is the possibility that one day they will be chatting up French or Chinese people?  That– like grammar teaching– will work for one student in twenty.

What is going to movitate the other 19? We know from psychology that the three main motivators to do well (in anything) are autonomy, mastery and group belonging.  The highest-paying job in the world blows if you’re robotically following orders.  The living definition of stress is lack of mastery (or at least being good at something) while being obliged to do it, and people will go to incredible lengths to be a part of (and defend) a community.  I suspect that this is why online games such as Call of Duty are so massively popular:  you can re-do levels until you get them, you can do “ops” in groups, and you have a fair amount of control over who you are (avatar building) and what you do.

What about the A.P. exam?   Teacher David W. on the FB group recently asked this:

“at what point/level (if any) do you or other TPRS teachers stop striving for 100% comprehensibility? I’m tied to the Advanced Placement Spanish Exam as an end goal, and it draws heavily on authentic print and audio sources. It’s more or less impossible for non-heritage speakers to have 100% comprehension of these by their fifth year taking Spanish classes. So at some point it seems like they have to start getting used to doing their best despite not getting everything (which they’ll also face when interacting with non-teacher native speakers). Would love to hear any thoughts on this.”

Great question.  Here’s what I think (thanks Terry Waltz for many discussions on this):

  1. Language comes in two kinds:  what we understand, and what we don’t.  The more we understand, the easier it is to figure out the rest.  Look at these two Blablabian sentences:John florfly Miami 24 Nov.
    John florfly squits Miami 24 Nov.

    The first, well, it probably means “John goes to/is in/went to/was in Miami on the 24 Nov.”  The second…well…there are waaaaaay more possibilities.  So, how do we make the second sentence easiest for the Blablabian 101 student to figure out?  Well, we have two options:

    a. we can get them to “practise” various “metacognitive strategies” or whatever edubabble currently stands in for “guess.”
    b. we can teach them as many words as possible.

    Now, if the students know that florfly means “went to,” they will have an easier time guessing at what squits means.

    Bill VanPatten has talked about this problem and has noted that “constraints on working memory” have a significant effect on processing.  Basically, having “too much stuff in the head” at once slows processing.  So, the more high-frequency vocab students have “wired in” to the point where they automatically process it, the more “mental bandwidth” they have for dealing with unknown stuff.

    It’s like organising your cycling or climbing gear, or books, or clothes, in a room or in a closet.  All the Googling, planning and ideas won’t help if you don’t have racks or shelves.  C.I. of high-frequency vocab is the shelving system of language:  it makes life easier by providing slots to stash things as they come in.

  2. There is no research (of which I am aware) suggesting that “processing noise” or getting incomprehensible input helps acquisition.  Indeed, one of the reasons why babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of input to generate even single words (while a student in a C.I. class can start generating simple sentences within a few hours of starting C.I.) is that most of what babies hear is incomprehensible.  A little kid literally hears this when Mom talks to him:  bla bla bla candy bla bla bla tomorrow.

    Many people who travel get a lot of incomprehensible input even when they know the language where they are traveling.  When I am in a Mexican market, I would say that 90% of what I overhear– slang, fast Spanish, low-freq vocab– is over my head, and I’m pretty fly (for a white guy) at Spanish.

  3. There is no way to speed up processing speed.  As American audiologist Ray Hull notes, adolescents process L1 at a max of about 140-150 word per minute, while adults typically speak in L1 at about 180 WPM.  In L2, Hull suggests that 125-130 WPM is optimal speed, and that nothing can speed up processing speed.  Asking an adolescent to “practise” understanding adult L2 speech is like telling a short kid to grow– it’s a developmental thing that cannot be changed.


I would suggest that if you have A.P., you have three strategies which are your best friends:

  1. Reading.  Blaine ray and others have noted that by Level 5, students should be reading 1,000 words a night.  If the reading is 95-98% comprehensible, the kids will slowly acquire new words.  This will help on the A.P.
  2. Movies and video.  Watching anything in the TL, with L1 subtitles, will help.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good L1, accurate L2, and it’s compelling.
  3. Online language apps– e.g. Duolingo, or LingQ– are (to me) boring, but a lot of kids like them.  If they are reading/listening and understanding, they are acquiring.

Anyway, there we go:  “useful” vocab is useless, and “real world” language is not really effective processing practise.