A friend of mine told me he frequently gets asked if I’m a TPRS teacher. My answer: TPRS is an am vs. use question for me. Yes, I use. No, I am not “a TPRS teacher.”
There are so many strategies from TPRS that have made me a much better teacher and that I use in almost every class period. I wrote about them in “What I Love about TPRS.” On the other hand, there are several strategies and principles in TPRS that I simply leave aside, for various reasons. In no particular order, here are some things that, as my preschooler would say, “crack me nuts” about the teaching method known as TPRS.
It’s about time.
Believe it or not, the field of Second Language Acquisition research has long been divided on the question of whether people acquire their second language by the same process by which they acquire their first. As I wrote in my “what I love” post, Stephen Krashen lands in the “yes” camp. He thinks that the process the second time around is much the same. Bill Van Patten agrees that they are “fundamentally similar.” Therefore, if you can reproduce the L1 (first language) process you’ll be successful in L2 acquisition.
My opinion: I think the process would be the same if we could reproduce the ingredients that led to acquiring the first language. The problem is, we can’t. There’s no maybe here. We absolutely can never reproduce the L1 acquisition environment.
All of my departures from TPRS stem from my disagreement here. It thinks it can reproduce L1 learning and it just can’t. And then it figures out it can’t and tries to make up for it in ways that don’t make sense to me:
- Fact: Learners know what language is supposed to look like. They know how to think about language. This is called metacognitive awareness. Babies are just getting it. Children already have it. This has to cause a difference.
1) English translation of every target structure. They’re going to do it anyway, why not do it for them and make sure they get it right?
2) Pop-up grammar. They’re going to think about the grammar, why not explain it in brief spurts and then move on?
- Fact: There’s not enough time for randomness. My daughter still says taughten and she’s heard English every day since she was born. She still says yo tieno and she’s heard Spanish from her primary caregiver every day since she was born.
Children do not attain an adult grammar of their first language until they are about 8 years old. EIGHT YEARS it takes. Even if we could reproduce the L1 process, we simply don’t have the time.
TPRS solution: “Shelter vocabulary” by targeting the structures and vocabulary shown to be used most frequently in the target language.
- Fact: Comprehensible, engaging input is very, very important for successful language acquisition.
TPRS response: Make sure students understand everything they hear by translating everything and going really, really slow.
My choice: Leverage metacognitive awareness.
Learning language the second time around has one huge difference that has to impact how students approach the learning: metacognitive awareness. That is, they know how to think about their language. They can think, wait, I did that wrong, what was that again? why was that word there?
Students know what a subject is (even if they can’t label it-I don’t mean grammatical labels here). They know what a verb is. They know what order words are in in English. You can’t pretend they don’t. Well, you can, but they’re going to transfer this awareness anyway, so you really ought to find a way to take advantage of it. Why? You guessed it, there’s not enough time to discount it.
My choice: Pattern input for inductive learning.
When people acquire their first language, there’s not a lot of pattern to it – that is, no one sits and decides to teach their 2-year-old present tense regular verbs. How to pluralize words. Objective and nominative case. So, if it happens the same way the second time, why not just do it randomly? Ben Slavic, one of the biggest names in TPRS training, advocates this random approach. I am on a completely different road from Ben here.
I do not spend a lot of time attempting to “integrate” certain words into some kind of pre-arranged list of vocabulary from week to week, but you can if you want. I find that doing so stilts the quality of the stories.
Me: I make fun stories that contain patterned target features I want my students to master (e.g. using quiero and demonstrative adjectives to express which thing they want from a selection of things). I want them to extract the pattern so they can apply it to other words.
It is easy to see why some of the best TPRS teachers just prefer doing PQA [the practice of asking students highly repetitive questions about themselves] the entire class period, just talking to the kids instead of doing stories.
Me: I cannot convince myself that NOT having a goal other than my communicating language to students is the most effective way to improve my students’ proficiency. And click the link above and see the example that inspired this comment. It’s not easy to see. This would drive my students crazy in pretty short order. (The TPRS response to I’ve heard is that you’re just not doing it right; if you were doing it right, your students would always be quite engaged.)
Notice that I try to keep the PQA hooked to the original phrases, but that is certainly not at all necessary in PQA. If the discussion strays from the structures, it doesn’t matter. You are interacting with the kids in the target language, which is the entire point.
Me: Hmm. Maybe it’s his entire point. It’s not mine. That is perhaps my most important point in the novice classroom, but I have a lot more points than that.
I could go on. But I won’t. Summary: I choose patterning over randomness because this isn’t first language acquisition. And there isn’t enough time.
My choice: Avoid translation of every target in the interest of desirable difficulty.
TPRS’s major departure from the first language acquisition process is that relies heavily on English translation. You’re supposed to translate your target features for your students into English, always, immediately. But this doesn’t mesh with the way research has theorized vocabulary is arranged in our brains.
If researchers are right and vocabulary is more entrenched in the right kind of memory when it’s tied to the concept instead of the English word-
If researchers are right and a certain amount of difficulty actually creates stronger, longer memories-
Then, why are we using so much translation in the classroom? I really end up closer to OWL in this area.
I want to buy a butterfly, class!
Butterfly is a new word, so I write butterfly down and give the English. This sentence may lead to a discussion lasting one minute or the entire class period.
I can understand translating something like take advantage of into English because it takes too much time to get it across another way, but in my opinion, it just doesn’t take that much time to draw a butterfly.
But what if students think you mean “monarch,” asks my friend Carol Gaab? She tells a story in which she held up a water bottle and said agua and a few weeks later a student thought agua meant “bottle.” But here’s my point: If you hold up the bottle and say agua, and if you show a picture of a waterfall and say agua, and you show rain and say agua, and you show a glass of water and say agua, who’s not going to understand what the commonality is?
I believe translation is a faulty strategy for making up for the time problem.
Another strategy I can’t agree with that TPRS uses to ensure comprehension:
My choice: Balance comprehensibility and authenticity in speed.
This is TPRS’s biggest departure from first language acquisition. The method teaches that input has to be at least 90% comprehensible. To do that, TPRS trainers say translate targets, and then, go slow. Like really, really slow. One TPRS presenter told me we should imagine every word out of our mouths is a coin dropping into a well, and maybe then we’ll be speaking slowly enough.
The problem is that students constantly fed this type of language do not typically understand authentic language – because this type of language is far from authentic in any natural context at all. No one talks to children that way. No one talks to anyone that way.
I’ve been told I shouldn’t be using authentic resources with my novice students simply because they can’t understand 90% of it (and because I’m overestimating how much students can be engaged by Starbucks Mexico instead of being asked the same question 30 different ways in one class period).
All the success stories I’ve seen that counteract my claim here are about motivated, high-aptitude learners that aren’t representative of the larger group. I watched my “advanced” students struggle and fight to understand an authentic speaker tell their age because they never had to listen to authentic language before Spanish 3.
My choice: Ask for and expect output as a vital piece of the puzzle.
I confess I’ve had some rather difficult interactions on this particular point. I’m guessing few TPRS teachers would agree with the advocate who recently told me that output in the language classroom is irrelevant, but it is a core tenet of TPRS that “forcing output is not only not helpful, but can actually be harmful for students.” One teacher who recently asked my opinion on TPRS was baffled by this:
I personally love to ‘force output’ and have seen the fruits of those efforts so this seems a little too idealistic to me. I am all for CI and ‘lowering’ the affective filter, but what I love is pushing students to do things they thought they could not do. I know that I did not start really speaking Spanish until I started teaching and that was because the circumstances ‘forced my output.’ Therefore I love to recreate that ‘forcing of output’ environment.
Babies do not speak because they actually can’t. My toddler doesn’t say “My head hurts. Can I have some Tylenol?” because she is actually not capable of it. Physically, she doesn’t know what sounds will convey the meaning, or even how to make her mouth emit those sounds. This cannot be true with second language acquisition. Students are capable of output of some kind from the very beginning, so the “silent period” concept is very muddy. Very.
I agree that many teachers push their students too far too fast – you cannot reasonably expect students to manipulate past tenses accurately until they can consistently hit Advanced Low proficiency, which cannot be achieved in 2 years except by the most motivated and gifted students – but I do not agree that we can’t push them at all. One TPRS teacher’s argument was that output was just “motor memory,” as if that doesn’t matter, but we know it does. We’ve watched our students ace an essay and then fought to understand their stilted spoken output, because the motor memory really matters.
In trying to defend this point to me, Stephen Krashen argued his research. What was his research? He presented two case studies involving subjects who produced written language because they were disabled and physically incapable of speech. When I asked for research based on groups who could speak, he had no response.
I like some of Krashen’s theories. Quite honestly I’m a much better language teacher because of his writing shifted how I think about language learning. But I also highly respect Lightbown and Spada, Ellis, Swain, Gass, Selinker, Curtain, Doughty and Long– some tenets of TPRS ignore very smart people on the sidelines saying, “Wait a minute, perhaps it’s not quite so clear-cut as all that” in the name of “Krashen said this, Ray does this, Slavic does that.”
The TPRS defense on the output issue is that no, they don’t force students to produce language (the way I do when, for example, I do a speaking assessment and require interaction on Edmodo in the first unit of Spanish 1). But the TPRS students can, and do, when it comes naturally. But – I know, I’m a broken record – if I don’t have to wait until they do (and research says I don’t), and there’s not enough time for them all, then why would I?
The widespread phenomena of passive bilingualism and third-generation shift pose interesting questions here. In a nutshell, it’s the situation in which an immigrant’s child grows up hearing their parents’ native language and so they can understand it but they can’t speak it. Then, of course, their children are not bilingual at all. This is painfully real in my own life. My preschooler has to be forced to speak Spanish unless she has a lexical gap in English, because she says that “Spanish is too hard” and “I don’t like it” and “I can’t do it” (sound familiar?). We can claim social and cultural factors in play, but the fact is our students live in the same society that Zoe does.
Spontaneous accurate output may happen in your classroom today with a few students. We can believe all we want to that in a few years students will suddenly blossom into proficient speakers; it’s simply not supported.
My choice: Design curriculum to move through ACTFL proficiency standards, not simply high-frequency structures.
TPRS is often difficult to align with the ACTFL proficiency standards, claiming that learners “skip” the novice level (really, they skip around capable of benchmarks from some levels and miss others), and so, according to some, the standards are faulty and should be ignored.
But the ACTFL proficiency standards are not a fly-by-night set of descriptions put together by people who don’t know anything about language acquisition. They acknowledge that language capability is anything but random. Language learners, especially in the limited time we see them, and the age at which we see them, need to be able to accomplish certain things beginning with survival language and moving up to more advanced tasks, tasks based on communicating meaning.
Though they can be a measure for anyone, the purpose of proficiency standards is not to describe L1 acquisition; they describe L2 learning. The L2 process may somewhat (or largely) mirror the L1 process but -you guessed it- there isn’t enough time, so it benefits our students more to help them move through a sequence of desirable tasks in the L2. So what’s the result for TPRS? If the teacher ignores proficiency tasks, students end up with large holes in proficiency; they can describe an object, but can’t make plans to attend an event, for example.
That said, most prominent TPRS teacher-trainers acknowledge and respect the importance of the proficiency standards.
Don’t take it or leave it
As TPRS teacher/blogger “MJ” says,
I’m realizing that different parts of CI work in different situations, for different purposes, and with different sets of kids. I was trying to force Movie Talk and TPR and Scaffolding Literacy and TPRS stories and Embedded Reading into every lesson. The down side to pure TPRS is that it can’t work for everything, with every kid in every situation.
Anyone who used to think I’m smart is probably dumbfounded by how obvious that statement is, but I’m a slow learner. CI is king. TPRS was the tool by which I learned (and keep learning) to do CI. TPRS is magical at the beginning levels, but isn’t necessarily the only way to teach the beginning levels.
The main “con” for me is that “TPRS” puts off so many language teachers. I’m sad that people are offended before they even hear the rest of the story, or before asking questions about how TPRS teachers address reading, writing, speaking, or the biggest target, grammar…. people get offended just by the initials, then don’t hear that good TPRS teachers do include grammar (writing, reading, speaking) in their lessons, even if they don’t teach them to the same extent or in the same ways as teachers who use other methods.
Her concern isn’t unfounded. In a conversation I saw recently on Edmodo, a teacher (“Mrs. Johnson”) asked*,
I have a dilemma. In my Spanish class, I have a new student who comes to me from a TPRS Spanish class. I use Avancemos and we are finishing the sports unit and I gave her a quiz to see what level she’s in, and on the test her level is not that of my class. I don’t know what to do. Suggestions?
Naturally, someone wondered, well, is she “better” or “worse”?
Is it possible to move her to another class? Should she be in level 1 or 3?
Turns out the girl wasn’t up to par for Mrs. Johnson’s class, but she wasn’t thrilled about moving the student to another class:
She’s in level 1, grr… I wouldn’t like to move her…
So “Mrs. Straub” weighs in, frustrated with how poorly TPRS students supposedly do in grammar:
You’d better move her even if it’s a bother. In my experience the students who have studied with TPRS are dramatically lacking with verbs and grammar. Besides, the difference between level 1 and 2 can be a lot. I’m sorry.
The sentiment was somewhat more moderately echoed by “Mr. Frink” who, like I recommend here, incorporates TPRS into a mix (although probably not the mix I would choose):
I agree with Mrs. Straub. I use TPRS, but I also balance it with exercises with verbs and grammar. Everything’s better in moderation.
Perhaps you have the idea that you can take TPRS or leave it. I was told recently that if I’m not adhering to all the tenets of TPRS I cannot claim to use TPRS at all. Fine. I’ll just continue to call myself a storytelling teacher.
For what it’s worth, here’s the summary of my advice.
Don’t take TPRS.
Don’t leave TPRS.
Evaluate the practices of what TPRS preaches against what you know to be good language teaching principles, and against your situation, and against your personality, and take from TPRS what works for you, and leave the rest. And despite what a “this is the only thing that works and you better use all of it or you’re a failure” hard-core TPRS teacher may tell you, finding the blend that works for you is not only okay, it’s the best way.
For more advice
If you’re really interested in how you can integrate the best of TPRS into your situation, you could ask me and I’ll help you all I can. But honestly, you’ll probably get better help from some amazing teachers I count as friends and some of the best in the business. I’m sure they’d love to engage in a conversation with you and be professional, helpful, and not at all condescending about it.
*This conversation took place in Spanish; I’m translating here so anyone can benefit from the example.
NOTE: This post was heavily revised in January 2017 as part of my commitment to a more positive path.
For Carol Gaab’s comments on my arguments here, see her rebuttal guest post.