Definitions of CLT and TPRS

Brian recently asked me my definition of communicative language teaching and tprs.

I have written many short essays on clt. Rather than dig them out and post them to my blog as I have intended for months and even years, I thought I would try this off the top of my head.

Communicative language teaching is jargon, i.e. it is specific to a field of study, research and practice. When a teacher says, often in a snide way, “I thought I always taught for communication,” that tells us nothing about the way he teaches. Textbooks are labeled, Language X for Communication and inside you get nothing but verb charts and pronoun charts with hundreds of meaningless exercises.

(The following paragraph will be rewritten soon. The above mentioned Brian has detected a point at which I went off-track and right here is the point. I welcome anyone else’s comments about anything I write.)

And therein lies the essence of ’communicative’: meaning. We go way off track here with the typical teacher b/c they feel they can instill meaning in a topic through coercion,as in, “It sure does mean something, it means the difference between a passing grade and a failing grade.” A parent might say, “I’ll give you meaning; no cell phone for a week if you don’t get an A on that next Spanish test.”

Behind this coercive sense of “meaning” lies a total devaluation of language, reducing it to an exercise. I would say pointless exercise, but it really does have a point: to get a grade. But that’s all.

(Here below another problem I should have seen: I spoke of structures but used a lexical example. Here’s a replacement: instead of <<"But it does have meaning. ’Rojo’ means ’red’.....>> read: But it does have meaning. The preterite means the action is completed; that’s its meaning.” That’s its grammar book meaning, not the meaning we carry in our minds. That meaning comes from experience and there is little to no experience in memorizing for a test that the preterite means the action is completed.)

Language here has been reduced to a set of structures, devoid of meaning. The teacher will remonstrate, saying, “But it DOES have meaning. ’Rojo’ means ’red’; that’s its meaning.” That’s its dictionary meaning, not the meaning we carry in our minds. That meaning comes from experience and there is little to no experience in memorizing for a test that ’rojo’ means ’red’.

So there is a total misunderstanding here as to what language is. The teacher believes that forced tasks of memorization, repetition, and puzzle-like exercises can instill in the learner a model of L2. Faced with the assurances of “veteran” teachers that their students DID learn L2 in this manner, we are left scratching our heads about all those people we knew and know who took several years of a fl in school and know nothing. The teachers’ explanation that those students were the dullards, the slackers, the unmotivated just doesn’t hold water.

Before giving my definitions of CLT and tprs, let’s take a look at what language teaching was in the halcyon days of post-Sputnik America when foreign language education received a new priority, one not related to Big C culture as it had been for dilettante gentlemen and ladies pre-WW II. Now we had seen the need for fl competency in the far-flung battle-fields in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The Army’s language training program evolved into the Defense Language Institute.

As I was typing up this response, I happened to be looking for a book on my shelves when I came across this: Methods of Teaching Russian, 1967. Now I know that some will say that this is just one book and not necessarily representative of teaching methods of the day. I beg to differ. I think anyone my age reading the excerpts below will agree that this was the mindset of the profession in those days and is exactly what led to the Krashen revolution in the 80s. The revolution had many revolutionaries and I know their names and honor them, but Krashen’s name has been affixed so thoroughly to this sea change in language teaching in the U.S. that I will use his name as a label for the rejection of the old methods of teaching.

p. 68 “VI Correction of Mistakes

Grammatically perfect speech is a difficult goal to attain. A good presentaton of grammatical rules is only the first step. These rules not only have to be understood, but also remembered and, finally, applied correctly and consistently. Experience shows that even advanced students may make mistakes on rules which they know very well – rules which they have learned in the first semester of their first year. The best solution to this problem is to keep a constant, systematic record of mistakes and to devise corresponding corrective exercises. ”

This is immediately followed by a caveat: “It does not seem advisable to correct the students constantly while they are speaking. A student may forget what he was about to say, and also with some studnts such constnat corrections may take the wind out of their sails. The oral corrections could be practically limited to the principal mistakes in pronunciations and to misplaced stress.”

The dominance of behaviorism is clear in that the author actually invokes Skinner’s name on p. 130 and goes on to give a classic example of grammar teaching (the cyrillic letters in the sample verbs have been rendered into Latin letters)

“Suppose we want to teach the present tense of Russian verbs. Our textbooks always break them into at least two types, the first and second conjugations. some go further and distinguish two subtypes of the first conjugation ones: those with the ending stressed (vstayu, vstayosh), and those with the stem stressed (delayu, delayesh). Some add still other subdivisions: verbs like idu, idyosh versus those like vstayu, vstayosh; those with shifting stress like pishu,pishesh versus those with fixed stress; verbs with mutations versus those without. Eventually, any text somehow treats all those subtypes, though of course they are not all necessarily introduced in the same lesson. But it is rare to find a text that takes up the person-and-number endings one by one. usually we throw all six (or twelve, or eighteen – depending on how many one feels there are!) at the student at once, in a table, and tell him “Learn the endings.”

In a programmed course this would not be allowed; we would have to bring in each ending separately -perhaps one after the other, but with drill on each before going on to the nex. And each type (conjugation) and subtype (stressed ending, unstressed endings, shifting stress, mutatins, and so on ) would be brought in spearately – again, perhaps one after the other, but with a great deal of drill on each before the next came up. So that what might be one lesson in a standard textbook would turn out in a programmed course to be a whole series of separate units.

At this point we need to bring up the second concept of psychology that I mentioned befoe – that of opeant conditioning (shaping). This is the process of controlling the environment and reinforcing the desired elements of the patterned behavior each time they occur, so that with each successive attempt the learner’s behavior approaches closer to the desired behavior and finally coincides with it, until he can thenceforth perform it unerringly every time. It is not hard to recognize this as a refined and controlled use of conditioned response, which we all associate with the name of Pavlov.”

See, they even get some Russian Culture in there – good old Pavlov and his little sobaka.

The author goes on to describe how the student should participate. This particular chapter was on programmed learning. Those of a certain age will remember the teaching machines – simply desks with a built-on device for allowing the student to proceed step by step through a set of programmed instructions in which the “steps” to mastery of a grammar feature or pronunciation component of L2 were broken down into minute, “successive” approaches to the desired behavior. You can still find the textbooks in used book stores. A good language one is Lamadrid’s Communicating in Spanish with William Bull consulting and even better (in the sense of even more confusing and monotonous) is Artes Latinae by Waldo Sweet.

I urge those truly interested in the development of methodologies in fl teaching to read over books like this. I have books from the early part of the 20th century and books from the period between the wars plus books opposing the Krashen “anti-grammar” revolution. “Anti-grammar” is what the opponents call it b/c they want to insinuate that grammar is not taught and is therefore ignored, producing learners speaking a kind of “pidgin” L2.

I have a very, very long critique of such a book which I composed several years ago but have never found time to type up for the listservs or my blog.

Please be advised that many comments in these books do show great appreciation for learner needs and diversity. In fact, in this book I’m quoting from, although the “converesations” tend toward the memorized, there is an emphasis on oral production. I’m not sure I would call it communication in the sense of interpreting, expressing and negotiating meaning. But for Russian, many learners were dedicated to defending our country against the Soviet threat, as it was called, and they would memorize dialogues, do the drills, etc. and, perhaps, learn Russian.

Several decades ago, when Krashen was just coming into view, Russian professors at ASU were remarking that the DLI students coming into classes at ASU weren’t all that good. The DLI used the approach described above. Cognitive code began to be worked into this method and the combination of the two is what I see most teachers using now.

So, communicative teaching = Using L2 to interpret, express, and negotiate meaning.

Human perversity being what it is, we must unpack this a little.

Meaning = a personal response to an event.

L2 = a language the learner does not yet control at a specified level

Interpret = figure out the meaning of what someone is saying or writing to you

Express = produce something in speech or writing intended to produce an effect on someone else i.e. a personal response on their part

Negotiate = fish around until you manage to figure out the meaning of what the other person has said or written and until you can elicit that personal response from that other person.

The reason I put meaning first is b/c that is exactly what is squeezed out of not only language but also mathematics, history, all the academic subjects. The arts and athletics remain the preserve of personal expression, of meaning. Why do we study the Great Depression? Who knows? It is just presented as a series of facts to be put down on a test. No meaning.

So any utterances in a fl class in L2 that carry no meaning, i.e. make for a personal reaction on the part of the learner, does not allow for acquisition. The student may very well learn that “yo” followed by a verb with an -o on the end “means” “I do something”, but if the student does not care what that something is, the brain will not register this as anything but a classroom drill to be repeated on a test. It will have nothing to do with that encounter with the family stopped by the side of the road with a broken-down pick-up and no cell phone, and will therefore not carry over to that situation.

How does TPRS connect with this? If I come up to you and say, “OMG, did you see that accident up there on the corner? I don’t think the police will let us out of the parking lot,” you can bet you’ll be listening for meaning. TPRS, by engaging in an ancient form of conveying meaning, the story, draws learners of L2 into close listening. By interpreting meaning i.e. by wanting to know what’s going on regardless of which language it’s being expressed in, the learner’s brain will begin to lay down the forms in which that meaning is expressed incl. pronunciation, accidence = grammar, syntax…. incl. vocabulary, idioms, etc.

By so engaging the learners, the teacher can watch for signs of students who want to participate in the telling and make room for those students to do so. Thus begins their expression of meaning i.e. it is their story. The negotiation is there from the beginning as meaning eludes the learner and he grasps for it i.e. tries to figure it out. More negotiation takes place in expressing meaning, a much tougher job.

Other methods may provide this sort of learning, but tprs seems to wrap it all up, incl. judicious and clarifying comments on features of the language. What many fl teachers cannot get over is the notion that those comments should become the focus of testing b/c they are the core of what it means to “learn” a language. And they are right…. using “learn’ in a Krashenian sense. They know the fact that of adverb placement in French; it’s just that when they try to express themselves in French, they do not place the adverb where it belongs, following the English model instead since that is all they have in their internal model, no French. All they have is the rule, which is stored elsewhere in the brain, inaccessible for language processing in spontaneous speech.

This brings us to the underlying basis for Krashen’s theory and, ultimately, Chomsky’s. It also brings us to the Monitor. What Chomsky has done, if I understand it correctly and I have explored Chomsky almost not at all, is observed what speakers can do in a language. He then tries to come up with an explanation for how they do that – thus deep structure, transformational rules, surface structure, etc. However, he cannot point to specific parts of the brain and say, “There, see, that part there delivers affixes to the surface and there are the transformational rules being applied in order….. there, see those flashing lights?” We cannot do that yet, so we have to be content with observing the output of the brain and puzzling out what must be going on in there to deliver this final result: a well-formed utterance in Lx.

A recent grammar of English has 3500 rules. There are probably many more. Conscious learning, memorization and application of these rules would be beyond the capacity of most people, yet this is exactly what the typical cognitive-code based language teacher expects of the students. What winds up happening is one of two things: in L1, social shibboleths like double negatives are focused on; in L2, basic structural items like present tense formation are focused on. The mind being what it is, some people can learn a lot of these rules, “learn” in the Krashenian sense of storing them for conscious retrieval. So when they go to say something, they quickly run through as many of the rules as they think they need, formulate the utterance, and then speak it. That’s what Krashen calls the Monitor. When writing, we can use it to much greater effect, even in L1. It can get us through an utterance not elegantly but through.

So deep down, you cannot have any proof of how people learn languages. If you truly have analyzed the situation and think that rule-getting and rule-using is how we speak, then go for it. If you believe that language acquisition is a natural process that unfolds as we communicate in Lx (interpret, express and negotiate MEANING), then go for that.

What we don’t need is someone telling us how to teach.

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