tprs along with some definitions and a brief history of fl teaching

I was just reading a column on education by Nicholas Kristof where he used the term ’scalable’, which I first took to mean ’climable’ but, I realized by context, means ’can be scaled up in size’. He was citing the KIPP schools and their success with low-income minority children and wondering if they can be scaled up to cover entire states or even the country.

That jolted me into thinking about the recent thread on tprs in college. Not that I think tprs might not work with any age group – Brian Barabe uses it with adults and has used it with the middle grades – but I noted in some of the posts some odd references to tprs practices or what were supposed to be tprs practices. I wondered if I were reading people who had got an incomplete picture of tprs without realizing that it comes as a package, a loose package but one which must contain certain essential elements or surely fail in execution.

Then I got to thinking of the early days of tprs and wondered why so many tprs advocates in those days – Blaine Ray, Phoenix Country Day School, Jason Fritz (sp?)- seemed to be out West. Then it dawned on me: without going into details, there is a particular social group Blaine is a member of and that group is prominent out West but almost unheard of back East. I think it is possible that Blaine’s method/technique got an initially receptive hearing by people in that group and, of course, without that group.

How big a role that played, this social group, I have no idea. Perhaps a sociogram of tprs would reveal that. There are other people I know who could probably tell me. But the point here is that tprs advocates for a long time were professional isolates, and are often still considered misfits at best and unprofessional at worst, as we’ve seen on this List quite often. Nevertheless, the method (the proper word; see below for definitions of theory, approach, method, and technique) has spread. While we don’t know how many teachers have tried it and abandoned it, at least partially, we do know many have testified they would never go back to ’traditional’ teaching methods (see below on that, too).

How far tprs will go is unknown, but it seems to be spreading.

Now, looking back to Kristof’s word ’scalable’, we might ask, “Can tprs spread throughout the profession without losing a good deal of its effectiveness, dynamism, and joy as it leaves the hands of the initial pioneers, the so-called ’paradigm pioneers’. This happens with everything I can think of: recipes, karate styles, clothing, military tactics, gardening. As a technique, style, method spread into many hands, they undergo a transformation. Some say it is a dilution or distortion, others may defend the mutations as necessary, beneficial, and even improvements.

What will happen to tprs? I don’t know but those who are on the moretprs listserv, if they are any indication, go through agonies of anguish and self-doubt and need a great deal of support. A few charge the barricades by themselves, those pioneers, but most of us either, like me, only incorportate some tprs into their teaching, or use it sporadically, at least until we master the details.

What cracks me up is the notion I see on the part of some teachers I’ve talked to that tprs is easier than explicit grammar instruction. Believe me, when I’m exhausted (the topic of a recent thread), I turn to EGI; it is a LOT easier than keeping L2 going and coming up with material that will engage kids (refer to Daniel’s post on engaging kids). Many students like EGI b/c it is cut and dried, relying on memorization of meaningless chunks of info like which ending goes on which verb for which tense. Filling out worksheets is mindless work that disciplined students can easily accomplish.

Now don’t some of you testier folks go off on me and take this all personally. I am not saying that any teacher who doesn’t use tprs gives out meaningless worksheets and uses L1 in the classroom all the time. I am simply contrasting the strain of using tprs with the relative ease of lecturing students on grammar points and then giving out practice sheets. If that’s what you do, then go ahead and take this personally – just kidding.

So when we read posts wherein someone states that they have used tprs and found it wanting, pay attention certainly, but look to make sure they were using tprs. It takes a long time to get the hang of it. Some tprs-ers make it look easy b/c they can go into a class with no plan whatsoever and start a story which develops into a terrific fully-formed lesson, but that means there is a lot of experience and hard-won skills behind that performance. So it’s not easy.

My point is that as tprs spreads, you are going to see mutations. Judge them on their results but be aware that most successful tprs practioners can lay out a very carefully plotted sequence of steps AND are pretty committed and creative people with personalities suitable to engaging a roomfull of 7th graders. That latter talent alone is worth its weight in gold.

Finally, to my definitions:

The first is my own and therefore quite inadequate but is my understanding:

Theory: an explanation. That’s it. Unfortunately, most people are not disciplined enough to stick to the demands of a well-formed theory and accept unscientific explanations. Outside of science, that’s fine, but a theory of how people know a language is definitely within the realm of science and so we must construct theories.

From “Anthony, 1963” as cited in the first ed of Teacher’s Handbook but the bibliography does not list any Anthony, so I don’t know who Anthony is.

Approach – nature of language and language learning. The nature is based on a theory of language and language learning.

Method – how organized i.e. plan for presenting L2 to students in an orderly way.

Technique – what actually happens; trick, strategem, gimmick, contrivance to accomplish an objective

For example, I start with the theory that language is not learned the way academic subjects are, that the learning is a natural and unconscious process which can be repeated after L1 is acquired and that it is learned by starting with comprehension of messages which lays down the patterns of the language which can then be accessed to produce the language. (this is often labeled ’acquisition’ after Krashen in contrast to learning, which is an intellectual, highly cognitive, rule-getting academic process.

I then develop my approach based on this theory. My approach would necessarily involve comprehensible input to start with, leading to production after the internal model of L2 was built within the mind of the learner, and only after that would conscious knowledge of L2 structure be introduced.

This approach would imply a method wherein we would see the utilization of a graded presentation of input with plenty of possibilities for and encouragement of interaction among learners i.e not teacher-centered, and a subsequent push for production in speech and writing of the L2 patterns presumably layed down in the minds of the learners.

In order to carry out this method.

To activate all this, specific techniques in the classroom would depend on the age and academic readiness as well as social readiness of the students so that techniques would engage them in this largely unconscious acquisition process. Everything from puppets to drawing, talk-arounds, write-arounds, games and competitions, skits, story-telling, map work, story-writing, and on and on, ad infinitum.

This would in no way preclude the appeal to conscious knowledge of the L2 patterns in the form of verb walls and other charts and diagrams, tprs-style ’pop-ups’, paradigms, etc., again, depending on the proclivities and expectations of the learners. But no one would be expected to be able to engage in interpretation, presentation or interaction in L2 based on grammar explanations alone. And at all times, assessment would look to the learner’s proficiency in communicating something meaningful in L2.

Re “traditional methods”. I’m with Krashen: the traditional teaching method for fl was akin to the Natural Approach of Terrell or communicative efforts in general, like tprs. After all, story-telling is the oldest and most wide-spread means of education among humans. Books in the late 19th century clearly show a ’use the language’ approach to 2nd language education. What happened was that it was used with modern languages which had not yet found a niche in the public school system. In order to get modern languages placed there, advocates were forced to adapt modern language teaching to the approved methods for teaching the classical languages, Latin and Greek.

But even there, there had been a change. Waquet shows that those Latin speech communities in Europe were formed by people who entered institutions at the age of 5 or 6 where they were brought along much as Frank Smith describes language and writing acquisition in his essay, “Joining the Literacy Club”, i.e. everyone accepted you, knew you would eventuall acquire the community’s means of communication but did not expect you to be perfect. No pressure, just love – well, that might be an exaggeration. I am speaking, of course, of the monastic religious communities entered by so many youngsters in the Middle Ages when Latin flourished as a means of communication, a lingua franca. It WAS NOT taught via grammar explanations and drill.

So what did happen? In the 19th century in Germany, if I have this right, a method called grammar/translation was developed. The aim was to nail down the grammar completely before contemplating reading for meaning. It was seen as a wonderful means for developing mental abilities like discipline and analysis, which it probably is. But there was no need to communicate in Latin anymore, so the focus was taken off that.

Along come the modern languages, forced to adopt the same method to prove how “serious” they were as academic subjects worthy of being taught to young master Fauntleroy. I have a Latin teacher’s manual that ridicules the notion of teaching modern languages, so those advocates of German, French, Spanish, etc. had an uphill battle. They settled for 2 years only b/c they assumed everyone had already been studying Latin and Greek for years and so would need only brief instruction in the “simpler” modern tongues.

Along came WW II to show us the vacuity of this approach for reaching proficiency, and we relied on behavioral psychology and structural lingustics, resulting in ALM. Then the cognitive psychologists decided we needed to learn and understand the rules of L2, and that approach continues to dominate in classrooms to this day.

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