Student Teachers

What does a lover of French think of “communicative” teaching?

I always use the word communicative in quotes cos most of what I see that is labeled “communicative” language teaching is basically grammar and theme-based stuff with a few ask-and-answer activities, as opposed to jump in and find info you actually care about from people who actually want to speak the language.

Anyway, my colleague Leanda (full classic TPRS) and I have been chatting with a student teacher who is doing her French-teacher practicum with another colleague.  This colleague is a grammarian and “communicative” teacher who has seen c.i.– and says she likes it, but won’t try it– and the student teacher wants to “do” TPRS.  Her mentrix won’t let her.  But she has been watching classes and reading and seen some demos.  She saw one of my German T.P.R.S. demos and was intrigued.  So anyway we have chatted about her own experiences in high school learning French (and her experiences student teaching in her mentrix’ classroom) and here are a few things she said:

On being asked to “practise speaking french with her classmates”:  She said that it always feels “fake” to speak ____ with a non-native speaker.  She said that when her teacher asked her to practise in French, she would just speak in English with classmates.  Take note, people…if a kid who loves French doesn’t like speaking it, how do the other 90% of your students feel?

One where she got good comprehensible input: she read as much as she could, and she enjoyed listening to the teacher’s French.

On where she really “got it” with French: when she went and lived near Vimy Ridge in France for nine months.  She mentioned how she lived above a store.  The girl who worked in the store was young and spoke good slangy gutter French but knew that Nicole didn’t know much French slang.  So the girl said “I’ll speak YOUR language” and she would massively simplify– and standardise– her French for when our ST came in.  This was often two-word phrases.  This was a massive help– it made French comprehensible.

On grammar teaching: She said that– for her– grammar was easy to learn via rules.

On how well grammar teaching is working for her own French students (8th graders/level 1): 

The kids have difficulty focusing in class.  Their comprehension is low, and their output terrible (low amounts, bad grammar, terrible pronunciation).  The text provides very little reading, and the homework book a ton of grammar practise.  Today she saw my kids’ 4th “relaxed writes” (retell the most recent story, modified) and was amazed to see kids writing 400 word stories– with generally very good grammar– after only 8 weeks of TPRS.  My kids are also beginners.  T.P.R.S., hands-down, blows traditional teaching away.  Her biggest frustration?  The kids are not enjoying French.  And here, dear readers, is your daily “take-away,” as they say:  just because you like something does not mean other people do, nor that your enthusiasm for it will make others start to like it.

On her University methods professor:  Her methods prof– a French Ph.D.– was tedious, annoying, and, in my view, wrong.  The prof stressed immediate correction of students, grammar work, and lots of output.  The prof was also a total French nazi in class, and would have freak-outs if English was spoken.  What were you supposed to do if the very technical, specialised vocabulary of teaching was something the student teachers– almost none of whom were native speakers– didn’t know?  “Struggle,” she said.

Anyway, there you have it: this is how a lover of the French language, an innovator even as a student teacher, and someone who is going to be a very strong languages teacher, sees her own past.

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Should– and do– student teachers try T.P.R.S.?

Last year I did workshops at Simon Fraser University for Janet Dunkin’s French methods class.  Dunkin, a longtime French teacher in North Vancouver, is on a two-year secondment to S.F.U. where she teaches student teachers how to “be a French teacher.”  She has an academic colleague, Timothy Cart, who co-teaches.  Congrats to Janet Dunkin for inviting CI/TPRS practitioners in to meet her student teachers. Next up– presenting the method to U.B.C. And U.Vic. languages teacher candidates.

A few of the STs are at myb school and I got a chance to talk to them and their cohort so today’s question is should– and do–student teachers try TPRS, and, when they do, how does it work out?

First, there is significant resistance to TPRS/CI in many schools.  As noted earlier, teachers are generally a conservative bunch who operate in conservative environments and who learn from people steeped in tradition.  Many languages teachers don’t want to/don’t know how to change practices.  This makes it difficult for innovators– especially younger ones– to try something their mentor/mentrix isn’t familiar or comfortable with.

Second, there is a power differential in a student-teacher situation.  The student teacher has to do a “good job,” and that usually means doing what the mentor/mentrix wants.  The all-important letter of reference and final evaluation will too often be dependent not on authentic language acquisition but on whether or not the student-teacher did what his/her “boss” wanted done.

Third, student teachers often don’t know the method thoroughly.  Anyone who’s tried TPRS knows, as Adriana Ramírez said, that there is a three-year time needed to go from start to something like mastery.  So a student teacher often cannot get the results the method delivers right away, which makes them– and the method– superficially “look bad.”  In my experience, bad TPRS trumps good grammar grind/communicative teaching hands-down, but the results are long term…kids will not immediately spit out awesome French/Spanish/whatever.  In the grammar grind class, or even the communicative, you  appear to get immediate results— “Look, the kids are talking!  Look, the kids are doing worksheets, or revising their paragraphs!”– which is pleasing to anyone who doesn’t really get how language acquisition works.

Fourth, student teachers do not know the research.  I can argue with anyone because I’m a geek.  People like Eric Herman, Ben Slavic (and me, to a lesser extent) read studies etc, plus we practice the method daily, so we can say things like “Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, argue for very limited grammar instruction, and show that grammar instruction has very limited results.”  So…unfamiliarity with research and method makes justifying “weird” practices like TPRS much harder.

Fifth, the lack of initial output in a TPRS/CI class is disconcerting.  If the goal of language acquisition is speaking and writing– the “markers” of acquisition– then the choral responses, masses of input and lack of one-on-one speech seems weird to traditional teachers.  We know, as Wong puts it, that “a flood of input must precede even a trickle of output,” but to the uninitiated, it looks…weird.   Most languages teachers put the cart before the horse: speaking and writing are the result of acquisition, not the cause .

Sixth, Universities do not generally choose innovators to instruct student teachers.   I have looked in detail at the languages methods programs offered by the Univeristy of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.  S.F.U. offers a basic intro to comprehensible input.  We’re working on UBC and UVIC.My best guess is that what happens with helping teachers, co-ordinators, etc, is that they get out of the classroom– they get bored or ambitious or whatever– and when in an advisory role they stop experimenting.  These people too must please the powers that be.  So it is almost everywhere: you gotta lick the hand that feeds you.   (This is not, however, universally true.  For example, Christine Carrioux– languages helping teacher for the Delta School District– is a major innovator who has urged her staff to see TPRS/CI demos and workshops; S.F.U.’s Janet Dunkin is very open to new methods.)

So, the odds are not good that a student teacher will find a TPRS/CI-friendly classroom environment.  However, this is a blessing in disguise.  If you are a student teacher, your practicum can “teach” you by negative example.  If you must do the grammar grind/communicative thing whilst learning your trade, because your mentor/mentrix “has always done it this way,” you get to reflect.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this work?
  • What does “it works” mean?
  • Do the kids like it?
  • How much time getting quality input in the target language do the kids get?  Can you stay in the target language 90% of the time, as the A.C.T.F.L. says you should?
  • Are they improving?  What is “improving?”
  • Do they want to take the language again next year?
  • How well has communicative/grammar grind teaching worked for them in the past?    

The answers to these will guide student teachers when they finally get their own classroom.  Sometimes you need to see what works– TPRS/CI stories and reading– and what doesn’t to make your instructional decisions.  If you are a student teacher who wants to try CI/TPRS, I would suggest you try…but the bottom line is, you need a solid ref from your mentor/mentrix so we can get you into the system.  You may have to suck it up and play the game.  Once you’re in, and you have no conservative/non-innovative people to please, you’re good to go, and you can then explain why you have chosen method ___ over method ____.