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.

How do I start the Year with T.P.R.S.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.

So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

Bob Patrick’s awesome student-generated story idea

Ok ppl this frikkin’ ROCKS! Bob Patrick, who majorly rocks the T.P.R.S. party–in Latin, no less– came up with a cool idea as story warm-up which he calls “one word at a time stories” and Ben Slavic, that relentless acronymist, called O.W.AaT.S. Here it is:

1) make cards with 10-15 words in TL and English that will be in next story.

2) put kids in groups of 3

3) give kids 2-3 new words. They have to start writing a story using the 3 new words. The teacher circulates. When a group gets 1 sentence done– on scrap paper– teacher checks it (opportunities for pop-ups!)

4) when the sentence is good, it gets put on larger, poster-sized paper. The kids then write a second sentence. Same procedure followed.

5) when they have used their 3 words, they trade words with another group and keep going. They have to include 1 dialogue and they can’t use any notes/dictionary/new words except the ones on flashcards.

6) teacher has a sentence limit– e.g. 15 sentences total– then at end of class teacher can type them up for reading the next day.

So I told my colleague Leanda Monro (level 3 French via pure T.P.R.S.) and she gave Bob’s idea its own spin. Check it:

A) she wants to kids to acquire “Jingle Bells”– “Vive le Vent“– in French (well, a bunch of the vocab in it, anyway).

B) she’d asked a Christmas-themed story about a boy lost in the pine woods in winter, searching for his belovéd (she falls into the lake, and is rescued by a crew of Good Smaritan dogs, who feed her hot chocolate). While le petit garçon is wandering around looking for his girlfriend, he runs into a collection of random people while babbling poetry.

C) Leanda cut up 13 new words. They looked like this:


D) the kids were put into groups of 3 and their assignment: write a poem– what le garçon is babbling to himself in the woods as he wanders– using the new words. Each group got 2-3 words to start.

E) When a group got a sentence done, Leanda would correct, they would copy onto bigger paper, and they would move on.

F) the finished poems became the basis for PictureTalk (a.k.a. Ben Slavic’s Look and Discuss) and the kids were hooked– their own work. Here are two examples:



G) Here’s the kicker: when Leanda played them “Vive le Vent,” and asked them comp questions, she estimated the class was around 90/90 (9 of 10 kids got 9 or 10 of 10 questions). The activity was a really good vocab front-loading tool.

I like this: kids can own it (their stories), it’s not crappy output, it shelters vocab, it will become good input…nice work.

Leanda Monro btw is nothing short of a pedagogical genius. She teaches– wait for it– Humanities (English and Socials mixed), PowerFit (brutal, hardcore physical training mixing aerobic work with freeweights plus lessons on anatomy, diet, etc), Level 3 French (via T.P.R.S.) and Social Justice 12. Oh and she’s won bodybuilding championships a few times, is a personal trainer, and at 5’2″ and I am guessing 110 lb soaking wet could probably pick up a 300-lb dude and throw him 20 feet while smiling and reciting French poetry in a really nice accent. Ya, Leanda rocks.

Stories saving language: notes on learning & teaching Okanagan

I was presenting in Kelowna, B.C. on Friday and met a guy who’s saving a language. Tyler E. works for an Okanagan school district and is a speaker of the indigenous language Okanagan (spoken in southern B.C. and northern Washington State). Tyler this year has a full-time Oakanagan language class and his mission, basically, is to save Okanagan, of which there are few adult speakers left.

Okanagan– of which I got to learn a few words on Friday!– was largely made extinct by the racist genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. It is written using English letters, with a few add-ons for the non-English sounds (like Vietnamese). Tyler has been majorly struggling with how to make the teaching work but he feels like he’s hit a pedagogical jackpot with comprehensible input.

I got to chat and acquire some Okanagan from Tyler after the workshop and interesting were some of the things Tyler said about what the native Elders– who have input into local education– have to say about what they want to see in Okanagan language teaching.

A) they want all Okanagan teaching to be done with stories. This is Native tradition and these people have been here for literally 13,000 years and they know what works for them.

B) they do not want the language taught via the grammar grind. There are still elders and many parents who had English (and French) literally beaten into them in residential schools (whose aim was “to take the Indian out of the child”) and for them grammar teaching basically feels colonialist. Abstract rules and examples are like the white man’s law: detached from local context, and used to enforce misery. As Thomas Pynchon’s narrator remarks, “it is not the name, but the act of naming” that enforces power. The Okanagan have told stories to their kids for 12,870 years longer than Canada has existed, they saw an alien language imposed on them in an alien way, and they are smarter than the white man’s Latinist-grammarian descendent teachers in knowing that stories– built on what kids know and experience– and not rules and tables, are the real teachers.

C) they want the language to feel alive to the kids. The TPRS practice of using bizarre names and details and situations works fine for these folk. They are not tied to any “cultural” agenda. They do not feel that they must be importing anything foreign into their kids lives, and because they live in two worlds– the Native and the modern– TPRS’ odd juxtapositions seem natural to them. Most important: kids like language. Least important: formal grammatical learning. Tyler tells me that traditional Native stories will work well with TPRS and he’ll be able to throw modern elements in there as well.

Native stories– and almost all traditional narratives, like folk tales, old epics etc– are full of the so-called “bizarre” stuff for which TPRS is sometimes– inaccurately– mocked. I mean, pick your epic, and you’ll find talking snakes offering women apples, clever crows stealing babies, Gods disguised as people…TPRS stories are a return to tradition, not a departure.  Magic realism, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez noted, is realistic because it’s magical.

After the workshop ended, we spent some time with Tyler practising teaching me by circling two parallel sentences– “the boy wants to swim” and “the girl wants to hunt.”

Here is how Okanagan is written:

in̓x̌ást iʔ pix̌m

x̌ast= like to

Some things I noticed from acquiring a bit of Okanagan:

A) it’s HARD to learn a new language if the teacher goes too fast. As soon as Tyler went too fast, I was lost. Ben Slavic’s insistence that the most important skill in T.P.R.S. is going s-l-o-w-l-y is 100% correct.

B) It’s EASY to pick up some new words if sentences are circled slowly.

C) it FEELS GOOD to “get it.”

D) I stopped noticing the “weird characters” after awhile. In the example above, the wiggly thing above the X is something like a “shh-w” sound. Once I got the meaning, that stuff just faded into the background.

Input – output = acquisition!

I did a workshop yesterday at Simon Fraser University and one of the standard questions came up:

    Can people learn to speak a language without “practising” speaking it?

The answer, as forty years of research and 100,000 years of evolution show, is “yes,” but sometimes stories speak louder than data. So, today, two cool stories about acquisition without output.

First, here’s a great blog entry by Trisha Moller about language acquisition. She writes:

“Recently one of my administrators shared a story with me that illustrates what using comprehensible input and repetition can do.

My administrator was teaching English in Africa to small children before he became a Social Studies teacher here in the States. He taught very young children and used fairy tales to help them to acquire the language. For months he was reading and illustrating these stories. He read The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, etc. He saw no indication that they were really understanding and they produced little language.

One day, one of the little boys was misbehaving and he was asked to stand outside the door for a moment as a consequence. It was hot outside and this lad did not want to be there. After the door closed he began to bang at the door and the teacher heard the following: “If you don’t open this door I’ll huff and puff and blow the house down!” My administrator was floored as that was the first English he had heard. It was spot-on for usage and the child showed that he knew just how to use it. It gets better though. Just after this, another young girl came up to the teacher and tapped him on the arm shaking her head no and said “this house is made of bricks.”

So, if you still think that TPRS/CI is not working, do not lose heart. It will take hold. Your students [if they are getting compelling comprehensible input] will acquire whatever language you are trying to teach them.”

The second story concerns my climbing partner Teresa. She’s Brazilian, raised in Brazil. Her Mom is Brazilian and her Dad is Mexican. When they were kids, Teresa and her brother heard Portuguese from Mom (and the rest of Brazil) and Spanish from Dad. Dad spoke Spanish to Mom, and Mom spoke Portuguese to Dad. They understood each other but never formally learned each others’ languages.

When Teresa was 8, her parents split up, and her mother married an American. Her stepfather spoke functional Spanish (to Teresa’s Mom). Her Mom, however, decided that the kids should learn some English, and so it was decided that stepdad would only speak English to the kids. So Teresa and her brother heard English, Spanish from their Dad on weekends, and Portuguese, but spoke only Portuguese. She and her brother also had a steady diet of American movies (variously subtitled into Spanish and Portuguese) and Spanish movies (also subtitled, mostly into English). She and her brother often also turned on the captions for English films as they found it easier to read English dialogue than to understand it in spoken form. They watched classic Disney films and Pixar movies over and over.

During childhood and adolescence, she had loads of input in two foreign languages, but no output: “both my Dads understood Portuguese even though they didn’t speak it much, so I heard a lot of English and Spanish but I never spoke it.”

When she got to high school, Teresa was put into advanced English and Spanish classes. She decided to go to Canada at aged 19 to University. She told me “when I arrived I could understand everything no problem. Speaking was really hard though. But one day about a month after I arrived, I was asked a question in class, and without thinking I answered in English. And after that speaking was no problem.”

Teresa got a job as a Youtube channel manager for Latin America and now uses lots of Spanish in her work. She speaks English (and Spanish) with an accent…but also with basically perfect grammar.


— comprehensible input– and interesting repetition thereof– works
— talking is the result of acquisition, and not the cause. These kids learned without having to produce.
— later-acquirers will have accents…but having an accent does not matter
— no formal grammar instruction is necessary to acquire a language
— there were no expectations placed on Teresa and her brother to speak, write, etc– they just listened and watched
— they were never made self-conscious by way of correction of grammar or accent, or by being forced to speak

Cool, huh?