Why aren’t there more T.P.R.S. teachers?

I’ve been getting emails and tweets from people all over and one of the questions that often comes up is, why are there not more language teachers using T.P.R.S. or other comprehensible input methodologies?

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.  The evidence is in: all you need for second-language acquisition is lots of meaningful, repetitive, interesting comprehensible input– aurally and through reading.  The research is very clear: we do not need to ask for output, do grammar drills, provide grammar feedback, explicitly teach grammar (in any other sense than brief explanations, like “amos goes with “we” in Spanish), ask students to self-reflect on their linguistic skills, etc, to enable students to acquire a language.   These practices are at best a waste of time and at worst a barrier to acquisition.

But for now, the question remains: how come more teachers don’t use C.I. generally, or T.P.R.S. specifically? 

So here’s a list.  What do you all think?

Adriana Ramirez told me before I started C.I. that I’d need 3 years to make it properly work. I am near the end of year 2 and I couldn’t agree more.  This is a major learning curve…but even done by a beginner, it’s more fun and more effective than anything else.  Now, I am far from the smartest guy in the room, but even I can learn how to teach via comprehensible input.  If I can do it, how come more people don’t?

OK; here we go:

a) Most language teachers survived the grammar grind, or the “communicative approach,” in high school.  99% of the time, they went to Europe or Japan or wherever after high school, where the amount of input in the language they’d learned was so high that they became fluent, or close to it.  For many of them, high-school is just the “groundwork” for the real world.  Nevermind that most kids won’t ever end up in ____ to “really” learn the language.

These folks basically see it this way: grammar grind/communicative was “real world” preparation; immersion (or Uni) finished off their language skills; this is good enough (or ideal).  We also teach the way we learn– unless we make a strong effort to step out of our mental box– so…

b) Lots of teachers are operating in non C.I.-friendly schools.  If you are the lone wolf– or even if there’s two or three of you– and you have a department, department head or administrator who does not understand, or (more commonly) “believe in,” C.I., it’s tough to kick against the pricks.  This happens in lots of places.  C.I. teachers get badmouthed behind their backs, or openly at department meetings, and since most teachers– especially women teachers, who are socialised to “play nice”– don’t want to ruffle feathers (“come on, team!”-style thinking)– it’s hard for a lot of us to do our own thing.

Thankfully, the Internet keeps us connected to our community.

This is not to say that life is hostile for all C.I. practitioners– in my department, we agree to disagree, and we get along great– but it’s still harder to innovate if you’re the only one.

c) C.I. doesn’t fit into standard curricula.  As noted in earlier posts, you cannot change the order of acquisition of grammar .  The only thing you can change is the speed, and the only way you can do that is to provide loads of interesting comprehensible input.  Texts– with their boring “units” and their utterly un-natural ordering of grammar items– are the antithesis of how language is actually acquired.  If a C.I. teacher is forced to “follow” a textbook, C.I. goes out the window.  Anyone who has ever seen the TPRS addendum for the Avancemos textbook knows how stupid, though well-meaning, that addendum, is.

d) Many teachers find it too much work to change over. Teachers who are young are overwhelmed, then they have kids; many of us old farts (and I am one of them) lose their edge.  “I worked for years, my system works, I’m not changing” is what one person flat-out said to me not long ago when I asked them about whether they’d want to try C.I.  I get it.  It’s hard.  The question, I suppose, is philosophical: why, really, are you here?  I like Nietzsche’s way of assessing the “rightness” of a choice (what he calls “the eternal recurrence”): you are doing something right if you could do it an infinite number of times and it would still be interesting. This is what I love about TPRS: I can never step twice into the same story.

Is the TPRS workload too high?  Hmm… when I look back at the work I did pre-TPRS, I am amazed at how MUCH stuff I made, found, put together, modified, etc, and how bad my results were.  I made a few hundred bingo (and other) games, I made conversation cards, I designed culture projects, I made conversation systems…and at the end of the year the kids still couldn’t say “I like running.”

With T.P.R.S., all I really need are a story outline or idea, the props etc, a reading that uses these structures, and a novel.  Indeed, after 20 classes, my kids are reading Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, and their output at the end of the year is MILES ahead of where they used to be (and there are zero management issues).  So…it’s not more work…. it’s different work.

e) Most teachers are cautious and conservative by nature (unless they are young, single and on a Pro-D day which ends with alcohol– Ok, I am being facetious here, but you get the point).   We are passing on tradition, we have old-school language teaching hammered into our heads….

f) Institutional and experiential memory is long. I read somewhere that educational research takes from 8-50 years to filter down into shared practice. We still have senior English teachers in my district who give spelling tests fer Gawd’s sake!  If you learned the Blablabian language via Activity ____ in high school, then you end up teaching Blablabian in a high school, doing Activity ____ is an easy default.

95% of teacher learning does not happen during methods class, as all of us (except for University education-program designers) know. We learn most of our skills in real time, in a real job.  This means you are going to get support, advice, materials etc from established people, and, in languages, that means grammarians and “eclectic”-approach people.

g) Standard grammar or communicative teaching works as a “weeder” of students who do not learn via grammar instruction or communicative tasks, which reinforces what most people think– that most people cannot learn languages cos they don’t “work hard enough.” I recently read a great article about Alcoholics Anonymous which pointed out that A.A.’s success rate is abysmal– max 10% of AA attendees stay off the sauce (or whatever) for any length of time– yet its rep is solid because the 90% people for whom it fails don’t go talking about it; the 10% who make it, join, mentor others, speak publicly, etc, and so the “success” rate appears high and the failures are blamed for their failure by those who have succeeded.  According to A.A. boosters, if A.A. works, it’s because of the method; when it fails, it’s the fault of those who failed.  This is like saying “we made a drug that cures ___ 10% of the time, and the other 90% it’s the fault of the patient that the cure did not take.”

If we use Method X, and it works poorly for many students, we could come up with many explanations.  Bad method?  Students who don’t have skills or motivation?  Who knows for sure…but given that anyone and everyone, even the severely mentally challenged, can learn a language, and that most people in the world learn two or more languages without formal teaching, it’s a long shot to say that failure to learn is the kids’ fault.

What we do know is that in Canada, as Netten and Germain (2012) argue in a paper (see bibliography for details), “Core French” (what most kids get: 5-6 hours/week of french from Gr5-Gr11 or so) doesn’t work very well.  Lots of kids drop out, many don’t like it, and those who do finish have poor skills.  The ones who do best tend to be white (and, increasingly, East Asian), wealthier and with more educated parents (the same is broadly true of French Immersion kids).  These are the kids who go on exchange trips to Quebec, whose parents buy them Dora and Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, etc.  Hmmm…anybody see the problem here?

Looking around at various B.C. school districts, what I have heard, over and over, is that generally 75% of kids drop out of languages by grade 12.  If a 1500-kid schools has 8 blocks of French (250 kids) in grade 8 (level 1 for you Yanks), by the time they get to grade 12 often there will only be one or maybe two blocks left (25-50 kids).  Partly this is cos taking a second language is only necessary to the grade 11 level (in B.C. and a few other provinces) for Uni admission purposes.  But you have to wonder.  What if math was taught this way?  What if more than 75% of math students dropped math by grade 12?  There would be an uproar.  National crisis!  We’re losing our edge, bla bla bla.

My guess is that traditional grammar or communicative teaching “weeds out” the kids who don’t naturally learn in those ways, and so the ones who do finish are held up as examples of the “success” of these older methods, which reinforces bias against change:  “Johnny got an A in French 12; that means other kids should also be able to.”

At ____ last year (names have been changed to protect the guilty), the TPRS teacher and the dept head (a grammarian and I.B. teacher) each had Intro Spanish. At the end of the year when they had to decide who the “top kids in Spanish” in each section were for award purposes, the TPRS teacher had literally 15 kids per block at an A/A+ level, while the dept head had one.  The TPRS teacher said it was C.I. that did it while the department head said something like a lot of these students [in my class] don’t put in the work or don’t have the skills. (Same kinds of kids in both groups).  I’ve seen the TPRS results– they’re stellar.  The department head refuses to try C.I., bad-mouths the department’s two C.I. teachers (who by any standard get amazing results), and still maintains that it is student work habits that drive acquisition, not the teaching method.

Yet, for the department head, the failure of many kids is a benefit to her: she ends up with the egg-head kids who slave away over grammar when they get to the International Bachelaurate year of language study, and she doesn’t have to change her teaching style, and the kids still do “well enough.”  She would get annihilated in a non-egg-head school.

h) Following a book is easier. In BC, there was a provincial committee 10 years ago that looked at Spanish resources. They allowed ¡Díme!  (the dumbest book ever made), Avancemos, Paso a Paso, etc, because anybody can go in with those texts, and just follow the instructions. ¡Juntos!— which is as good as it gets for the communicative approach– was rejected cos in order to use it, you had to be pretty creative, have reasonable Spanish, be into all kinds of manipulatives and out-of-seat activities, etc.

In other words, the Ministry of Education and the Board consortium which collectively reviewed Spanish materials wanted a teacher-proof program where anyone could “teach” Spanish.  I get this, sort of– I know loads of people (I am one) who wasn’t Uni-trained in language teaching and had to learn to teach it on the fly– but it’s pretty frikkin’ bad long-term policy.  We like to say “students will rise to our expectations.”  Surely we can expect the same of teachers.  This btw is one of the reasons why A.I.M. is popular: it is so rigidly organised and laid out that you can literally walk in on Day 1 and follow the book for an entire year.

i) There’s no real pressure to “succeed” in languages teaching.   One of the ironies of the idiotic, standards-driven U.S. testing mania is that there has been real pressure to figure out what works.  Blaine Ray, T.P.R.S.’s inventor, was fired from his first  and second jobs because his principals wanted better results and higher enrolment.  Ray’s quest for a better method– which began with Asher’s T.P.R. and then moved into narratives after he read Krashen– produced what appears right now to be the best second-languages method. We Canadians have less testing, less accountability– all in my view good things– and, above all, much less inequality than the U.S., which leads to better outcomes for poorer students.  But the price for our ease is a lack of innovation, especially in languages pedagogy.  And too often we can just say “well, those kids didn’t learn French (or whatever) because, well, they weren’t working hard enough. People who really need to learn a second language have to take it in Uni, and usually go away to where it’s spoken to pick it up.”

j) Language teacher training programs are generally not optimally designed.  In B.C., none of the languages teacher training programs

  • offer teacher candidates a solid grounding in tested, systematised comprehensible input methods (TPRS, narrative paraphrase, Story Listening, etc).  If you can teach people the basics of TPRS in two days, why are student teachers not being taught?
  • teach, or ask teacher candidates to demonstrate, understanding of current research into how languages are acquired
  • hire professors/instructors who know S.L.A. research.  In the U.S., Bill VanPatten found that fewer than two per cent of Uni-level languages teachers knew anything at all about S.L.A.
  • ask that teacher candidates demonstrate competence in C.I. methods

Much the same is true for most of the U.S. and Canada.  How do people actually learn effective methods?  From an experimental colleague, or from people like Blaine Ray,  Carol Gaab or the IFLT/NTPRS conferences.  I do TPRS workshops every year; without fail, I am asked why did we not learn this in teacher training?

k) Institutional pressure is strongly against C.I.  Krashen, who has done more to advance  language teaching than anyone, was unable to go to the ACTFL conference for years, because he has courageously and correctly called out ACTFL’s textbook sponsors about the high cost and low effectiveness of their materials.  They finally got him in there in 2016 because Bill VanPatten put his foot down.  As I have noted, using T.P.R.S. is way cheaper than using a textbook as well as being far more effective…which Houghton-Mifflin etc do not want to hear.

OK there’s my list of the reasons why C.I. teachers, and not grammarians or “communicative” teachers are still in the minority.