Beginner’s Workshop

When I first arrived at the NTPRS conference, I was automatically placed in the Beginner’s Workshop group, since I had not been to a TPRS conference before. Along with a big crowd of beginners, I spent the first morning with Donna Tatum-Johns and Katya Paukova and it was the perfect introduction to the week. The first half of the morning was spent with Donna reviewing some of the basic theory of and ideas behind TPRS and the second half was spent in a Russian TPRS lesson with Katya.

Donna told us that a baby is exposed to it’s native language for approximately 10 hours per day, so by the end of it’s first 6 years, it has already had about 20,000 hours of exposure or input. Keeping in mind that we only get our students for about 600 hours in a year, we need to make every minute count in the classroom! The main way to accomplish this is to focus on fluency. As TPRS teachers, we do this by focusing on the details of the story or the meaning rather than the language itself. Ideally, our students should be so involved in figuring out the story that they forget it is all happening in another language! In order promote fluency, we also need to remember to provide lots of input, however the quality of input we provide is just as important as the quantity.

First of all, input needs to be comprehensible. The number one way to make language incomprehensible is by speaking too fast, so it is very important to SLOW DOWN. Input also needs to be repetitive. There are many ways in TPRS to provide this repetitive input without boring students. Start by asking lots of repetitive questions while circling. Whenever you feel it is necessary during circling, go back and start the story over again. Keep adding new details and then circle those details. Another way to get more repetitions of structures is to add multiple characters and multiple locations to the story. Characters can be added into the main storyline or else as a parallel character. Usually in stories we also try to have at least 3 different locations. This allows for repetition of the structures and it aids students’ memories by helping them to visualize the structure in different ways. However, even if we provide lots of comprehensible, repetitious input, students still need to be paying attention and be motivated to try to understand what we are saying. That means that we also have to provide interesting input. In TPRS there are several ways of doing this. First it is important to teach students how to “play the game.” This means that they need to know how and when they are supposed to respond to our questions, and for this to happen, they need to be trained by the teacher. Sometimes the teacher can also reject the students’ answers and provide a surprise detail, which can have a comedic effect and therefore keep the students interested in the story. But the best way to keep students interested is to personalize your stories. There are many ways to personalize your classes, but Donna suggested the following:

  • give students creative names which reflect their personality
  • have students fill out a student inventory at the beginning of the year
  • talk to students (in English) before and after class
  • ask students about their likes and dislikes
  • show interest in anything the students say about themselves
  • find out students’ favourite song, book, movie, band, etc.
  • teach to the eyes
  • use PQA (personalized question/answer) everyday in class
  • use current events in class discussions and find out what students think about them
  • pay to the interests of the class; know what they think is funny and interesting
  • differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of all students in the class
  • focus on students and show interest in what they have to say
  • ask follow-up questions to get more detailed information

Once you start personalizing, you can also use positive exaggeration to make your students the fastest, strongest, smartest, or all around best at whatever they do in the story. This will help to prevent students from losing interest.

Above are the three most important parts of providing input, however in a TPRS class there is a lot more you can do to engage students and promote fluency. One thing that I have heard repeated often is that teachers in every subject need to remember that we are teaching students, not curriculum. One way to remember this is to make sure you look into individual students’ eyes when teaching, not just above their heads. We must also remember to hold students accountable for their learning by checking for understanding. They should get the message that we don’t want anyone to get lost and that if one student doesn’t understand something, that is reason enough to go over it again. Thus frequent comprehension checks ensure that you always have an idea of where your students are at.

Overall, Donna did a wonderful job of going over these basic ideas and it really helped cement the basics of TPRS in my mind more firmly.

Source: Donna Tatum-Johns and Katya Paukova, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Keeping Your Brain Young

On Monday, the first day of the NTPRS 2011 conference, Stephen Krashen was the keynote speaker. He spoke about several different issues, some of which I will explore in subsequent posts. One of the most striking parts of his speech, however, was about how to keep our brains young, something which I am sure we are all interested in! Continue reading

Unexpected Details

A while ago I went to The Comic Strip to see Jon Dore perform.  He was very entertaining and I was quite impressed overall.  I am always in awe when I see comedians perform so successfully for a crowd, and this night was no exception. I have always thought that being a comedian must be terrifying, especially when you see those comedians that just flop completely.  You can’t help but feel sorry for them, while at the same time being thankful that it’s not you that is up there.  Over the course of the night however, I started to think that there were actually a lot of similarities between being a teacher and a comedian – both of us are up on a “stage” trying to reach out to a room full of people. Comedians try to entertain the crowd while teachers try to engage students.

As I was thinking along these lines, I began to notice that Dore’s best jokes were the ones with the unexpected punch lines.  This is not a surprise for most people interested in comedy.  As the Wikipedia article on punch lines says: “Punch lines generally derive their humor from being unexpected.”  And Blaine Ray has always said that you don’t necessarily have to be a certain personality type to be an effective TPRS teacher, and that using unexpected details is the key to being able to tell funnier and more interesting stories. I think after watching this comedian and paying close attention to what was funny and why, I finally understand what he means by this!

Mi Vida Loca

Mi Vida Loca is an interactive video series developed by the BBC. While it was not designed with TPRS or comprehensible-input methods in mind, it is a nice break from stories for both the teacher and the student and it could easily be integrated into a TPRS curriculum. For example, students could watch the episodes and then you could ask stories based on the content in order to reinforce the desired structures. Due to the cultural focus of the video series, it would be easy to work some Spanish culture into the stories as well.

This series has been designed with beginner Spanish students in mind. There is audio as well as subtitles in both English and Spanish that can be turned on or off, so students can listen individually with headphones or it can be played on a SmartBoard for the whole class. Each episode takes about 20-30 minutes and after that students can replay the whole video or choose to skip around and only re-watch certain parts. Students seem to really enjoy the videos, and they get a chance to participate in them by doing such things as choosing which way to go on a street, paying the taxi driver in Euros, etc.

The series starts out with the student as the main character arriving in Madrid, where they meet a new friend. A mystery develops over the course of the series and situations arise throughout which help students to learn and practice the following:

  • essentials
  • ordering at a café
  • basic directions
  • meet and greet
  • ordering at a bar
  • buying a gift
  • times and days
  • buying travel tickets
  • booking a room
  • introductions
  • the formal ‘you’
  • shopping for food and basic items
  • ordering a meal
  • saying ‘I like’
  • months
  • checking in at a hotel
  • buying clothes and shoes
  • hiring a car
  • asking about property
  • taking about being sick
  • taking about the weather

See here for a more descriptive syllabus and to find out which aspects of grammar are covered in each episode. Full transcripts of each episode are also available on each episode’s individual page.

I have developed questions in English for each episode as well as the answer key. Please feel free to use them with your students!

Language Myths and Truths

One of my favourite parts of TPRS is that it is a teaching method that is based on what actually works in the foreign language classroom. Jack Taylor at TPRS Japan has written a wonderful blog post that sums up the most important theories behind why TPRS works so well.
In this post, he talks about nine language myths that are prevalent in schools today. I have summarized his ideas below and added nine equivalent language truths in order to remind myself the key points that I need to know in order to help students acquire a language.

Myths

  1. If students don’t know grammar, they won’t be able to speak.
  2. Correcting students’ errors improves their language skills.
  3. Students improve by speaking the language.
  4. If students don’t study hard, they won’t learn the language.
  5. Writing new words many times is the best way to remember new vocabulary.
  6. Students need a lot of time to practice writing before they can form correct sentences.
  7. The best way to teach reading is to do it in class.
  8. Teachers should save difficult grammar rules until students have mastered the easier ones.
  9. Total immersion in the language is the fastest way to become fluent.

Truths

  1. Real speech is subconscious and is immune to the effects of direct instruction.
  2. Grammar correction not only does not help students to improve, but causes them to focus more on grammar and lowers their motivation, resulting in a decrease in fluency.
  3. Input, not output, is the key to fluency. Speaking should not be the main focus of language-learning.
  4. Studying grammar rules does not help with real communication.
  5. Learning words in context and in different ways (ie. written, spoken) helps students learn vocabulary better than memorizing lists.
  6. Real writing ability is subconscious and comes from having lots of reading input.
  7. Free voluntary reading (which can be done outside of class) is the method that produces the best gains in vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and writing.
  8. Subconscious grammar rules are learned in roughly the same order by everyone and this order is based on how much the rule affects meaning. Therefore, give students a wide range of comprehensible input and don’t try to shelter students from “hard” grammar.
  9. Immersion is not necessarily the best way for beginners to learn because it is not comprehensible and can pressure students to speak before they are ready.