don’t be boring cos that sucks

Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to criticism of and questions about T.P.R.S.

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.

CommentStudents 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.” 

 

 

Advertisements

A Christmas Message from Papa Blaine

Hey folks– here is Blaine Ray’s annual Christmas letter.  Can people see how many awesome story ideas there are in here? Clase, había un ratón que quería sacar el queso de las trampas…  Anyway here is Papa Blaine:

 

Dear Friends,

What a nice time of year. It is always fun to tell everyone about all the wonderful things that have happened in the last year. One great thing is that I am still alive. Every year that gets more significant.

A real major high of the last year is that I have been getting better at my running. I used to pass only people in wheelchairs and with canes, but now I routinely pass people who are walking and those who weigh twice as much as I do. It is amazing. In fact, just last week I passed a person in good health who was running at full speed. I passed him easily. Right when I passed him, his Mom yelled at him to stop. He very obedient and he did. Besides, he knew he was going to lose the race to me anyway. So now I can run faster than people in wheelchairs, with canes and three-year olds.

After spending years in cheap hotels, I still haven’t learned my lesson. Last summer I stayed in a nice little 40 dollar a night place. I sat on the toilet and it broke. There was water everywhere. Luckily I was only there for one night. I ran out of towels soaking up the water.

I had one thrill last year. I turned 62 and so was eligible to purchase a lifetime pass to our national park system for 10 dollars. The guy working there of course didn’t believe I was over 62 so he asked for ID. It was such a wonderful feeling to finally get asked for ID to prove my age.Usually one look at me and they don’t question that I am very well qualified for any senior discount.

I had one major setback last year. I decided to use some old material in my Christmas newsletter.  I told the same story two years in a row. A couple of people pointed out that I was using old material. What a setback. This year I had to go back and make sure all of my stories are original this year. It is not easy.

I recently found a real bargain— a $3.50 haircut. I went in thinking it would take just a minute or two. I didn’t think they would cut much of my hair because it would be bad for repeat business.  Much to my surprise, the guy went crazy. He cut my hair shorter than it had been in years. I even asked him for a normal haircut but I guess he didn’t really know what normal was. I think I could give him some good coaching on his business model. If he left a lot more hair, people would come back more often. As it is, I won’t need another haircut for over six months.

We have had a major problem around our house. We have a really smart mouse. We put out traps and the mouse just eats the cheese and the trap doesn’t go off. We have tried several different ways of putting the cheese on the trap but so far nothing has worked. Now instead of singing the song “Feed the Birds” I sing “Feed our Mouse.” Every time I put cheese on the trap I feel like I am setting up a mouse buffet. It is pretty embarrassing to admit you are being outsmarted by a mouse. Hopefully we will have this solved by next year.

Love,

Blaine

What is T.P.R.S.’ Sequence of Instruction?

Now that I have been using Adriana Ramírez’ Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Storytelling for 10 weeks I thought I’d show how I use the text. At any point, if there is extra time, or we are bored, we take out our novel– Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, or whatever, and we read– guided and questioned by me– for 5-15 min.

Adriana’s teacher book has the historia básica– the story version we ask– and the preguntas personalizadas, along with a short list of the grammar “points” introduced in each story.

A) Photocopy the historia básica and the preguntas personalizadas and give the kids each a copy.  I give my kids the historia básica in photocopy form because I want them to re-read a simple version of the story.  The historia extendida and the comprehension questions are in the student book.

B) establish meaning– have kids write down Spanish words and English meanings in the student books.

C) ask the story, sticking fairly close to the historia básica. Add 1-2 parallel characters. Have 1-2 actors for the main story and have the parallel characters sit at their desks (with one prop each) to identify them. The beginning is always establishing lots of details about the characters.

D) Personalised questions and answers (PQA): ask the faster processors in class (just regular kids sitting there) the questions you ask the actors. Do this AFTER each actor has said his/her answer. E.g. If you narrate “the boy wants to speak Spanish,” ask the actor “do you want to speak Spanish?” Then ask the kids “do YOU want to speak ____?” For this I use whatever I ask actors plus the preguntas personalizadas in the teacher’s book (the kids also have copies of these).

E) When done, ask a thousand comp questions. Does the boy want to own a Ferrari? Does the girl want 10 blue cats or 20? I read sentences from the historia básica aloud and ask questions, and I also throw a TON of PQA into this.  I will generally do the comp questions around the historia básica  that I’ve copied and given them– I have found that another, very simple, re-reading of more or less exactly what was asked helps a lot.

F) Spend one block (75 min) reading the historia extendida aloud, asking zillions of questions, doing PQA, etc.  This takes awhile, as the historia extendida typically has a bunch of new vocab (typically 15 or so words not in the asked/básica version of the story).

G) Do ping-pong reading of the historia extendida for about 15 min. Then give them 20 min to write the answers to the comprehension questions in the student book. I collect these and mark 3 questions/student for comprehension.

H) at this point, Adriana gives them one period to practise and perform the story– changing only names and places– but I have ditched this because the kids give me crappy output and retells do not seem to boost acquisition. Adriana is convinced it works– it definitely works for her and her kids– but I have not figured this out yet.  I’ll keep ppl posted as hopefully Adriana can walk me through this for the 37th time (I am not a smurt guyy).

This is where I do MovieTalk and PictureTalk (Ben Slavic’s “Look and Discuss”). I will picturetalk 1-3 images that support the vocab from our story, and I’ll movietalk one video that does the same.

I) for homework, they have to either draw a 12-panel comic of the story, or copy and translate the story (the historia extendida). This is “deep reading” that really focuses them in on the story.

J) I sometimes “re-ask” the basic story super-quickly at some point (much less circling).

K) Test. First, speedwrite: they must write as many words as they can in 5 min. The topic will be either 1. describe yourself or 2. describe a picture I put on the overhead (this picture will be of a person who has possessions or characteristics of a character in the story).

Then we have a 5-min brain break.

Second, relaxed write. They have 35 min to re-write the story. They need 2 characters minimum, 4 dialogues central to the story, and they have to “twist” the story after our 3rd story. For the first two, they can just re-write the story. After that, they have to substantially change the story details.

L) I then give them the vocab etc (see A) for our next story.

Test and introducing new vocab takes 1 block.

NOTES:

1. If the kids like whatever we are doing, or reading,nand/or PQA takes off, I’ll spend as long as I can on this. If they are in the target language, and they understand, and there are zillions of reps, they are learning. Remember what Papa Blaine said: “My goal is to never finish a story.”

2. Another AWESOME thing to throw in are fake texts– easy to generate and personalise/customise for each story– kids like the visuals and you get loads more reps on the dialogue (this is the hardest thing to do– reps on dialogue). Just google “fake text generator” or try this one for iPhone texts.

3. Each class begins with me circling date, day, month, time and weather for about 1 min.  This means that by end of five-month semester kids will know all weather, #s 1-30, days of the week, etc.

4. It’s crucially important to remember that you must do what works for you and your kids. Adriana and I and Natalia and everyone I know who uses this book (and T.P.R.S. in general) uses it differently. T.P.R.S. itself is now different than what Blaine Ray created– he himself continues to modify the method– so do your thing. As I told Adriana, her excellent book is a platform from which Spanish teaching launches.  Adriana does retells; I don’t; both of us do assessment slightly differently, etc.

Ok there you have it, what I do.

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.

What do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences? (❤️ and one heartwarming TPRS story ❤️)

Every year when I start with beginners, I ask the kids, how come you chose Spanish, as opposed to Punjabi, French or any of the online options?    The responses are revealing. Note:  at our school, I get Spanish kids as beginners (level 1) who are generally in 10th or 11th grade.  Before that, they have done one of the following (some at our school and some elsewhere):

  • Core French (regular classroom French– 75 minutes/day for a five-month semester-long course) in 8th & 9th grade
  • Core French in 8th grade, then they dropped it and didn’t take a language in 9th grade
  • no language, because they are/were E.S.L. from another country originally
  • no language because they had learning support
  • Punjabi or Hindi as a heritage language (they already speak it, so basically learn reading & writing)
  • they come from another school, and I have no idea what they took there but most likely a bit of French

Today’s question: what do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences?  

  • “We learned a lot of rules but they were hard to remember.”
  • “I could remember the rules but not what they meant.”  I asked this kid more and she said “like you can remember to [conjugate a verb] but you don’t know what it means when you do it.”
  • “It was boring”
  • “I liked the language but I couldn’t speak it.”
  • “I liked speaking it but I couldn’t write it.”
  • “I didn’t like talking.”
  • “It was confusing.”
  • (from a very bright kid I have in English 11, who still takes French): “In grade 8, I could speak a bit of French after like two months.  But they just keep adding rules.  You have to remember all these rules when you talk and write. Now in Grade 11 I am constantly thinking how I should talk.  So I can only talk when I practice with my partner.  But then she [the teacher] puts us with a different partner and you have to rewrite your dialogue.”

We have to also remember that the kids I get are the ones for whom grammar or traditional communicative teaching doesn’t work.  A lot of kids keep on with French, Punjabi, German, Chinese etc and the teaching works well enough for them.  We also need to remember that teachers (at least all of the ones I know and work with) are incredibly hard-working and caring.  I spent 11 years going to workshops, often with my colleagues, and I can tell you that 95% of teachers (and all of my colleagues) work their butts off.  My colleagues are constantly revising, fiddling, etc.  These are not phone-it-in teachers using twenty-five year old lessons.  So we must conclude that methods don’t always work even if the teachers are working super-hard.

Now TPRS won’t solve all the problems, but it will address some of them.  How?

a) we don’t force kids to remember and regurgitate rules.

b) we focus on meaning, not grammar; we discuss grammar only to clarify meaning

c) We use stories– which have suspense and weirdness– and personalisation to keep things interesting

d) we don’t expect speech from beginners, or from those who are self-conscious.  Speech from kids is like, you’re on your way to buy an nice espresso in the morning, and you find a $2 coin on the sidewalk: it’s great, we love it, but we we don’t expect it and we’re grateful when it happens.

e) we immediately clarify all ambiguities, because we know, from forty years of research (and that awful feeling we get in our get when we are confused) that acquisition stops when we don’t understand.

f) we restrict writing (and speaking) to only what we have taught (a.k.a. sheltering subject matter).

Now, I’m definitely the world’s worst T.P.R.S. teacher.  I totally suck.  I mean, on a scale of “sucks a bit” to “sucks a lot,” I’m so far off the scale I can’t even see it.  I have screwed up PLENTY.  I have introduced too much vocab.  I have assigned grammar-based homework.  I got reluctant beginners to talk during P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers).  I have sometimes not stopped to clarify meaning.  I have built stories around grammar.  If a T.P.R.S. mistake can be made, I have made it.

That said, for me, T.P.R.S. is working better than Juntos (communicative) or ¡Díme!(grammar-grind) teaching, because I am slowly bringing my work into line with research and the classroom practices that Blaine Ray, Ben Slavic, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Susan Gross and others have developed, and I am sucking slightly less every year.  I get increased enrolment, zero management issues, happier kids, MUCH better output of all kinds, plus class is fun, all marks are higher, and the weakest kids can succeed.  Mostly, I attribute this to what T.P.R.S. lets us do:  stay in the target language most of the time.  The kids hear probably 20x the Spanish they used to– and they listen and read more.

❤️ Now, here is something heartwarming.  ❤️ When I finished teaching my first semester of TPRS, my student Jack K.came and thanked me for switching from the grammar grind to TPRS.  Jack had my awful trad teaching in Level 1, and TPRS for level 2.

I told him, thank Blaine Ray, not me.  So, Jack wrote to Blaine.  Here is their conversation:

“My name is Jack K., I am a 17 year old student at Tamanawis. And for the last two years I’ve been taking Spanish classes, I’m glad to say I did quite well because of your program.

The first year I arrived to Surrey from my native Quebec, I was offered to take Spanish class (because French was too easy) which I accepted. The class was very different but i enjoyed it thoroughly because I love languages. The only problem is that it didnt feel natural, it felt like a struggle, regardless of my teachers efforts, I found it hard to approach as did everyone else in my class, Mr Stolz had been teaching languages for years, but hes approach seemed rough edged, so the first year I did average getting around 70% , when I totally knew I could do better, because French is very similar to Spanish and I really wanted to progress.

The next year I took Spanish class again, but this time something was very different, Mr Stolz’s whole approach on the subject was different, it felt natural, and as the semester progressed I learnt way more then I ever thought I would, to the point where I was forgetting basic things in both French and English. So the second time around was just great, it went very smoothly, I did very well In the end, which sparked interests in languages I didn’t know I had. and literally on the last day of school, I spoke with Mr Stolz for a while and the topic of your program came up, (he spoke about your program quite often) and I told him how easy it felt the second time around, and I was really grateful, because I now want to get a minor degree in Spanish later on (which I didn’t want to do at first). Mr Stolz insisted on me thanking you personally for your program, because it actually helped a lot of people including me. So thank you so very much dude.”   — sincerely, Jack K.

Then Blaine wrote back:

“Thanks for your wonderful email. What a great response. I am so grateful that you were able to learn this way. What a great thing that you are now planning to minor in Spanish. Thanks so much for sharing.” — Blaine Ray

So I hope that when I hand my kids off to their college or Uni Spanish profs, they are happy with what I tried to give them.

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 ____.

How should I teach boring stuff, like numbers, weather and pronouns?


This animal is bored. Make sure your kids aren’t like this animal.

At a workshop, somebody asked me how C.I. language teaching deals with boring stuff.  Some things are essential, but boring.

  • hellos and goodbyes
  • weather
  • time
  • numbers
  • days, dates & months
  • the alphabet
  • pronouns
  • colours
  • location words
  • por and para in Spanish, or etre/avoir passe-composé verbs in French
  • Connectors, like “she said” and “then” and “afterward”
  • verbs such as “there is/are,” “to go,” etc

YAWN.  Some textbooks– e.g. Avancemos– do entire units on this stuff.  DOUBLE YAWN.  I used to make games to teach this stuff TRIPLE YAWN I AM FALLING ASLEEP.  Boring stuff is like a nice salsa: a bit makes everything better; an entire jar at once will turn you off Mexican food forever.

Today’s question: How do we teach boring stuff without boring students?

a) Days of the week, months, numbers 1-31.  Every day, you write the date on the board in TL.  Under the date, write how to say the date in TL.  E.g. hoy es lunes, el 4 (cuatro) de mayo.

At the start of class, circle the date for a bit.  Clase.  ¿Es el lunes?  Si, es el lunes.  ¿Es el martes? No, no es el martes; es el lunes. ¿Es el lunes o el martes?  Es el lunes.  Clase. ¿Es el cuatro o el cinco de mayo?  Si, clase, es el cuatro.

If you don’t know what “circling” is, it’s easy.  Make a statement, then ask about it.  Ask a question with a yes answer, then with a no answer, then an either/or answer.  For every question, restate the positive.  Don’t keep the same question order for circling.

This should, over 5 months, help the kids acquire #s 1-30 and days of the week.  You literally need 30 seconds per class.  After awhile, the kids will start saying them.

b) Colours and #s greater than 30.  Throw one colour– and one number the kids don’t know– into every story you do.  The boy doesn’t want a cat; he wants a blue cat.  No, no; he wants 54 blue cats.  You can do the same for hellos and goodbyes— throw one or two into every story.

c) Weather.  I start the year with one weather expression on board for the weather that day and circle that.  If the weather is different the next day, I write that on board and circle it for a minute.  30-40 seconds of weather circling every day = weather done by end of year.  This eventually extends into PQA.  Once the kids know a few expressions, you can then feel class energy and start circling something like “When it’s raining, Suzie dances in the street!”  You can also add weather as background in stories– “when Suzie went dancing, it was raining” (bonus: imparfait/imperfecto input!).

If the weather where you are never changes, ask “what’s the weather like in ____?” and circle that for a bit.

d) Also works for location words: in stories the characters are and/or move somewhere.  So when you say “there was a boy in Spuzzum, B.C.” and then you ask “where in Spuzzum was the boy?” (and kids make suggestions) you can add something like “the boy was in the purple Ferrari behind his Spanish teacher’s house.”

e) Time is easy to deal with.  I just randomly once/class point to the clock and say “Clase, son las diez y veinte” or whatever, then translate.  I circle that.  Clase, ¿son las diez y veinte or son las diez y quince?  Si, clase, son las diez y veinte.  If I said “son las nueve y diez, what would that mean?”  I also throw time into each story once– great chance to toss in the imperfecto/imparfait— and briefly circle.

f) For connecting words— like asks, answers, then, after, before, etc– just translate.  The kids will see these so often during the year that they will pick them up.  Every story has “she said” and “then he answered,” etc, in it.

g) for boring and high-frequency verbs, throw them into every story, use them over and over, but don’t circle them obsessively. Verbs like to like, have, be, want, go, come and need are going to be in every story, basically.  The first time you use one, circle it by adding interesting student-suggested detail.  (“Class, was there a boy or a blue turtle?  That’s right, there was a boy….”). After that, use the verbs (in various person and tense forms) but don’t circle them, and do comprehension checks.

Students will see/hear the “boring” verbs a zillion times during the year. They will get the reps, so keep things interesting. 

Blaine Ray does this in his Look, I Can Talk books and it’s simply brilliant: the boring stuff is simple easy background.  If you get rid of the idea that students must learn all “things in a category” at the same time (which they don’t, and can’t, and it’s boring and silly, and even if they do learn it, they forget), you’re set.

H) The alphabet.  Oh God what is more boring? Nothing.  Also note that the only place the alphabet is regularly used is the classroom. It is low frequency and therefore not important. WASTE NO TIME ON “ALPHABET ACTIVITIES,” PEOPLE 😏. Label your parallel characters with letters (chica jota = “Girl J”) and just write and point during quizzes (e.g. label your exit quiz questions n,o,p,q,r, point and say). Also note that if you do alphabet (or number) “games” or songs with your kids, they are probably learning the song a whole lot better than the numbers and letters.

i) Pronouns.  Put them into the background of stories.  You are narrating el chico quería a la chica.  La quería muchísimo (the boy liked the girl.  He liked her a lot).  You say “la means her” and then you check to make sure they understand the sentence.  Then, you use that (and other pronouns) for the rest of the year.  Because they are of low communicative value, pronouns are late-acquired, so don’t stress if your kids don’t start using them right away.  Whatever you do, do not make a “unit” around pronouns, and do not expect to teach your kids a song or rap about pronouns and expect them to pick them up.

If you’re teaching with a text, just locate all the boring stuff for the year and spread a nice thin layer throughout your year rather than forcing your students to swallow the whole Boring Jar in one tedious go.  The greetings unit (eg Avancemos 1 Ch1)?   Use one new greeting and goodbye per story.

One final note on circling: do not beat boring stuff to death (i.e. don’t let boring stuff take over your story).  Do NOT spend 3 minutes per class on the weather, or circle the time in a story for 5 minutes.  A few reps each day over the year adds up to the same thing as 60-100 reps in one story.  If they know that hace buen tiempo means “it’s nice weather outside,” it doesn’t matter if you repeat it eighty times in one day, or eighty times in one year.  However, if you do it eighty times in one story, some kids will tune out…and your boring stuff will, sadly, have become boring.

There is also research regarding memory which states that “distributed” practice beats “massed” practice for retention. If we need, say, 100 repetitions of hearing something to remember it, we have (broadly speaking) two options: repeat it 100 times in one class (massed practice), or repeat it four times per class for twenty-five classes (distributed practice).  It turns out that for learning sports skills and music, distributed practice wins hands-down.  However, I havn’t seen S.L.A.-specific research on this topic, so caveat magister.