We T.P.R.S. teachers often get slammed by the misinformed. T.P.R.S.– and comprehensible input generally– often looks so weird to a traditional teacher that mental fuses blow and an irresistible urge to break out the grammar worksheets and communicative pair tasks takes over. They aren’t talking? They don’t practise grammar? You don’t have a communicative objective? Quel horreur!
So, today’s question: how do Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to questions about and criticisms of T.P.R.S.?
First, blogger Sara Cottrell writes about what she doesn’t like about T.P.R.S. here, to which Carol Gaab responds here, and neatly dispenses with most of Cottrell’s criticism.
Next, we have Blaine Ray– the nicest guy in the world and the man who invented T.P.R.S.– who is at age 65 or so still teaching a class weekly (and refining his methods– Clarq and Whaley’s embedded readings, and his own teacher-as-parallel character are two newer fave tweaks), training teachers through his excellent N.T.P.R.S. convention and workshops, and often posts in Yahoo’s MORETPRS listserv. I just found one such post on my hard drive. Here is Blaine answering some questions about T.P.R.S. (edits for clarity)
Q: Does TPRS reach all types of learners in the classroom, in particular special education students?
A: Everyone can learn a language who has learned his/her first language. So in a sense TPRS might work with all learners. It does not work with unmotivated learners. We aren’t there to save everyone.
Q: Does TPRS really engage all students in the class?
A: Do grammar lessons engage all students? That really isn’t the right question. Does TPRS engage students better than other types of language teaching? I would say yes. There is something about live theater that is very engaging. I have seen students that seem to be disengaged tell me what is going on in the story over and over. It is been my experience that virtually all students follow the story line.
Q: Can´t weaker students just copy what other students say when answering questions?
A: At the end of a story we have students rewrite the story. I don’t observe copying. It is the writing of the story that tells me whether students have been engaged or not. I walk around the class and pick up all of their writings. There is definitely a difference between top and bottom students. I had one of the “self proclaimed” weakest students be the horse in my story this week. She had a much better ability to answer my questions than students I have seen in classes that have had no TPRS experience.
Timed writings show what weaker students can do. The difference is that when I have had students from grammar classes write a timed writing they can’t produce very much. What they do produce are memorized sentences. There is very little difference between the top and the bottom because they are all bad (meaning they can produce very little.) TPRS students can generally write well over 70 words on a topic in 5 minutes in my experience.
Comment: Students don´t really get any practice on their own in communicating with the language.
Response: You must understand the input hypothesis to understand TPRS. Students get constant practice in the only way possible to learn a language and that is through listening.
Comment: It is so teacher centered, where the teacher is talking most of the time, so students are learning so much less of the language.
Response: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.
Q: Can you do TPRS one day a week and still see the benefits?
A: Compared to what? I actually teach a class once a week and they don’t do TPRS the rest of the time. (I volunteer to teach the class.) I can see tremendous benefits in what I am doing. I talked to a girl yesterday about her Spanish and she told me how confident she was in her speaking. Students can’t fake speaking. They either know it or they don’t. I certainly think they would do better with more input though.
Q: How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm for all of your classes everyday?
A: A better question would be “How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm teaching out of a text book?” I taught exclusively out of a text for 5 years. I went home most nights looking in the newspaper for another job. Teaching with stories is energizing. I don’t see teachers using TPRS complain about maintaining enthusiasm.
Q: When you´ve got a classroom full of students that have a hard time staying in their seats, how do you reach them and manage the classroom so that they are not bored?
A: I can’t see any way of teaching that would work with students who won’t stay in their seats. In fact, TPRS does not work if a teacher allows social talking. Classroom management is easy. Most of my classes were over 40 and some were over 48. Boredom was not a problem. Students did not get tired of playing the TPRS game even after years.
Q: Are you giving students a toolkit of methods and grammatical structures to use?
A: Students are not aware of the structures. They are focused on the story. The teacher needs to be aware of the structures. But more importantly the teacher needs to see where the students break down in their speech and practice where the students need it most.
(Note: the idea of T.P.R.S. is to make language acquisition a byproduct of listening to (and reading) the target language. We don’t teach French, or Chinese– we teach stories but we teach them in French or in Chinese.)
Comment: The stories are monotonous and all have a specific makeup.
Response: This is probably a statement by a teacher who doesn’t understand TPRS. TPRS is all about surprises. Yesterday my story had a horse who was going to celebrate his 10th birthday at Chuck E Cheese. He was a good horse who goes to school and studies Math, Spanish and Horse. He got an A in Math, A minus in Spanish and a B plus in Horse. I had a girl who played the horse. Katie (the owner) had to go to the restaurant to arrange the party, went to someone to get the money and then got the money.
This was all dramatized. All along the way I kept asking the girl what she was doing. These details came from the students. Every story is a new adventure. If they are monotonous, it just means you haven’t taught your students how to play the game.
Comment: The stories all involve animals in some way, or getting an animal.
Response: That is not necessary. A story can be about anything.
Finally, a few choice quotes from linguist Bill VanPatten, given at the IFLT 2017 conference. Thanks to Michelle Kindt and Karen Rowan for putting these online.
On how languages should be taught: “Language is too abstract to teach explicitly. Stop treating language teaching like other subject matter.”
Comment: T.P.R.S. is passive– the teacher does everything.
BVP: “Nothing could be more active in a classroom than co-constructing stories with your students.”
Comment: “TPRS is too teacher-centered.”
BVP: ” The TPRS classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.”
Comment: “TPRS is too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”
BVP: “Entertainment is a valid form of communication.”
Comment: “TPRS is too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”
BVP: “TPRS is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.”
Comment: “Teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”
BVP: “What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.”
Comment: in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations.
BVP: “Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.”