sheltering vocabulary

What Is Learning Chinese With Terry Waltz Like?


I took a three hr/day, five-day Mandarin workshop via Zoom with Terry Waltz. The tl;dr: CI works; Terry is a badass; I learned some stuff.

She has a setup where there is a picture in the middle of the screen, question words on top, and new/current vocab (Chinese word written with Roman letters and translation) on the sides and bottom. When she talks, she points the cursor at the word, and it gets highlighted = easy to follow.

Class was daily the following:

A. Some focused talk around a topic, eg Day 1: who is cool/not cool. Day 4: days and numbers.

B. A story with an ocean of repetitions (circling questions)

C. Terry re-telling the story whilst pointing and clicking on words.

D. On the 4th day, some reading.

It’s three weeks later and I still have Chinese ricocheting around my head, which I cannot say about the language I took two years earlier at a conference which focused on “non-targeted” input, where there was so much vocab and so little repetition that I only remember how to say “I like beer.”

So…what did I learn? In no particular order:

1. Some shi— er, stuff— is too boring to ever make even a 5-min lesson around. Numbers, days, dates, weather.

2. Anything in a story is easy to remember. Anything randomly talked about, not so much.

3. Chinese is easy the way Terry taught it: with very focused C.I. and a lot of repetition. I’m gonna make a claim here: there is no way to effectively teach a language such as Chinese without narrowly-focused C.I. The language is a joke in terms of “grammar rules”: no genders, tenses, cases, articles etc. The barrier is, no cognates, and a weird writing system.

4. The “cold character” reading method works. They write an English word eg a name, then you read the Chinese character for it, then they put in another English word. Eg “Chris 他爬進去 Squamish” = Chris climbs in Squamish. You read that middle bit enough and presto! you’ve acquired it. You need a LOT of reading to remember them so the readers feature an ocean of repetition.

5. Zoom blows.

6. Any suggestions from teacher or other students about “how I remembered the meaning of ____ was by thinking ____” does not work (for me). Like in math, metacognition works best (or only?) when you do it your way.

7. Only two things worked to acquire the language: comprehended input, and clarification of meaning. Eg when I heard wo shi ku (“I am cool”) I thought shi meant “am” or “is”. But no— Chinese (like Russian) doesn’t have “to be”— Terry clarified and said it means something like “equals.”

8. Gestures work. Terry had gestures for the four tones of Chinese, as well as for meaning. If the gesture looks like the word, awesome.

9. There is a lot of stuff that you do not need to have explained to you that you can acquire easily just from input. Eg the “rules” for bu (no, not) and der (roughly, the ‘s in English or German): the way Terry said them, all I knew was what they meant. They got used in different ways (ie where they were in sentences, IIRC), but I didn’t worry about it: I realised that I would eventually “get” them.

The tones was another thing: Terry started off exaggerating them. On Day 4 a Chinese guy was in the lesson and when he talked— normally— I could hear the tones. No need to “practice”— just give us a good simple story.

In Spanish: I literally never teach the kids the alphabet, rules about ____, why Spanish has the ¡!, ¿? and accents bla bla bla…and yet the kids acquire them.

10. You can get a lot of mileage out of simple word games. Eg Terry’s characters visited McRonalds, Burger Duke, Taco Buzzer, etc.

Anyway, these are the same lessons I learned in my first two weeks of C.I. back in Jan 2012, but hey, good to learn them from the student’s point of view. And if you wanna acquire Chinese…Terry Waltz is your go-to 😁😁.

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.


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.

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

The other day I saw a French resource from Madame Fifi publications.  Resource #61 from “French Chat Boosters” called “Je me brosse les dents.”  This is a vocab package all about reflexive verbs and daily routines (I get up, I wash, I sit down for breakfast, etc).  My guess is there’s about 450 words and expressions on this sheet.  The teacher using it told me that these are add-ons the kids can use to make more detail about their daily routine writing, conversations, etc.  All the verbs etc are given in present tense first person.

T.P.R.S. teachers look at stuff like this and say “no way, José!” because in TPRS we shelter (limit) vocab but not grammar.  Today’s question:  why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

First, we know that the more we hear (or read) something we understand, the more likely we are to first remember what it means and then to say it.  It follows from this that if we really want to learn a vocab item– and since we have limited time in a classroom to deliver the target language– we want to provide fewer vocab items with more repetitions.  The more stuff, the less time per thing; the fewer things, the more time (per thing).

Second, we know that the brain processes about 400,000,000,000 of info per second, but we are only consciously aware of about 2,000 of those.  In other words, most mental processing is subconscious.  If this is the case, we need to address most teaching to the subconscious.  But since we can only access the subconscious via the conscious– vocab must initially pass through the “gateway” of the conscious mind (on the board, written, translated, etc)– we have to limit what goes in.  Too much “input” will overwhelm the conscious processing part of the brain, and mean that less “stuff” will get into the long-term, subconscious memory and processing.

Third, there is the frequency problem.  85% of all vocab– in any language– is 1,000 words.  Basic fluency in any language is about 700 words.  We are much better off just teaching the basics– and getting kids fluent– than we are “presenting” them with loads and loads of vocab.  My Avancemos text, for example– which “covers” Level 1 and 2 Spanish– has about 1,800 words in it.  Avancemos II (Level 3 and 4) has another about 2,000.  Why bother?  Who cares if Johnny doesn’t learn the words for “he washes his face” and “vacuum cleaner”?  Johnny sure won’t when he gets to Argentina.

Those who object that “well kids will see a lot more vocab than they will acquire, so we must “cover” more vocab” are half right.  But it’s a six-of-one vs half-a-dozen-of-the-other problem.  Sure, you could get people to recognise more vocab…but then they will have less to say because they have spent less time on the vocab they do have.  And would they recognise more vocab?  Maybe…but the less time spent on each item, the less likely people are to remember it.

Fourth, there is the interest problem.  Most traditional, communicative teaching has “themes” in “units.”  Food, shopping, daily routine, sports etc, each with its attendant grammar rules.  The problem is boredom.  How do you make discussion of one subject, in one verb tense/mood etc, interesting for 3 weeks at a time?  When was the last time you spent 10 hours discussing, say, sports, using only the passé composée and direct object pronouns?  It appears that this would become boring…and it does…so texts and teachers introduce a ton of vocab to make it more interesting.  If we have 30 sports to discuss, that’s better than 5.  But the problem is, what do you do with all this vocab?  The answer, sadly, is often just more of the same.

T.P.R.S. gets around the interest problem by doing everything together and by limiting thematic vocab.  Sure, we can ask a “food themed” story– I do– but I’ll only introduce say five high-frequency items and maybe one verb (pedir, to order/ask for).  Plus, the story will have funny (I hope) details– mine has the protagonists being served fried spiders etc by Ryan Gosling– and suspense.  Will Rochelle and Chelsea find food?  Will server Channing Tatum get their order right?  Plus, when I am done, I can always throw some food vocab into every subsequent story, the way I can throw whatever I want– as long as its comprehensible– into every story.  Next story I do, my characters will stop in at Ihop and order some fries on their way to ___ .

Which of the following is more interesting?

(a) giving kids a list of vocab, having them ask each other “do you ____?”, having them watch a video where people say/do the vocab, giving worksheets, etc, now discuss ____ and then write about ____ .  Oh and there’s a “vocab quiz to make you study and learn vocab” and a unit test at the end.  If this is a typical communicative unit, it iwll have 60 new words.

(b) asking a story where Snoop Dogg and 2-Chainz go out to eat tacos and their server is Justin Bieber, but he keeps screwing up the order because your student, Susie (who is in love with Justin Bieber) keeps distracting Justin.  The extended/embedded readings use the same vocab…but this time it’s Johnny dining at A&W and Lady Gaga is the countergirl who serves burned dinosaur burgers…BTW this story can be asked using say 8 new words and 25 the kids already know.

Which is more interesting for the kids to listen to, and act in?  Which is more likely to be remembered and acquired?  Which is lower stress?

We limit vocab– but not grammar– to make sure people really acquire the essentials.  After four years of good T.P.R.S., kids should have 1,000 or so words acquired…and be ready for France, Mexico, China, Germany, etc.