Corrections & clarifications on a thread that spun out of control

On a Listserv, an awkward statement I made has generated a lot of heat and distortion. It “went viral”, as they say now.

I’d like to make sure you understand where this started. I wrote “90% of students learn nothing”. Later I had to correct 2 parts about that: 90% was a rhetorical flourish that meant “most”. Also “learn nothing” referred specifically to the ability to use……. USE… L2.

What I was referring to is that due to the emphasis in U.S. fl teaching on grammar instruction, the vast majority of students come out of the classroom with no ability to understand or say anything in the TL. A number of people attacked that and a number backed me up. What I found impressive was how quickly both groups distorted what I said. I am not being ego-centric here, this thing was started by this one comment I made and here’s what happened to it (excerpts from posts follow):

“And again, I want to make it clear that the 90% figure we are discussing is an
indictment of the students, and not the teachers. For specific cultural
reasons, many U.S. students today are”

ME: This person can have this opinion, and this person earlier provided stats that backed up what I said, but I sure never thought I was “indicting” students or teachers, just the methods used, esp those embedded in textbooks that teachers are required to use.

“For me: It’s the 10; it’s the same with the other teachers that get to
teach the 10%. We love to teach those that want to learn; that is where the
joy resides for us.”

ME: A lot of us do like working with the other 90%. I would guess their parents appreciate that, too. I always thought I was earning my money only when I taught the other 90%; the 10%, as the poster says, are a joy to teach.

“I don’t
think it means their Spanish program was a failure because they didn’t
turn out bilingual. I would bet that just about everybody on this
list could pass a solild final exam in US History (unless you went to
school somewhere else) at one time in their lives, but, given the same
final exam today, almost all would fail miserably. This doesn’t mean
that studying US History was pointless, or that the history teachers
need to feel terrible about the results of their efforts. It’s simply
a fact that as we move on from high school we no longer focus closely
on lots of disciplines.”
ME: Turn out bilingual, are you serious? How about just being able to respond to a greeting? I’ve provided all the evidence I can, others have joined in, but many posters still are telling us….. what? That students actually do leave most fl classrooms with some ability to communicate? That the students are too dumb and/or lazy to learn? God forbid we should look at our methods.

“It may be that a student who takes two years of a language
and doesn’t use it may not be able to converse in it ten years later, but he or
she may remember something about the target culture and may be more open
minded because of the FL classroom experience”

ME: That’s where my “learn nothing” was misunderstood; I meant they were unable to USE the TL, not that they didn’t learn anything in the class. They may know the capital of France but if someone says to them Quel age avez-vous? they have no idea what’s being said to them. I just think our profession is either unable or unwilling to provide proficiency tests. If each fl teacher were to contribute a modest sum, ACTFL could pull together the best fl test designers. But how many teachers would complain that the body of what they teach wasn’t being tested i.e. the grammar? How many would feel betrayed and attacked if it turned out that writing conjugations on the board just didn’t result in students being able to use those verbs?

“Why would any sane potential foreign language teacher want to teach
based on this premise? [that only 10% of students would learn}”

ME: Because the sane fl teacher has been educated in a system that prizes the explicit knowledge of grammar and its manipulation rather than proficiency in L2. How many of our teachers are proficient – say, Intermediate High – in their TL? I would love to take an OPI in the languages I taught

Doesn’t it make you wonder if we have all the answers about how to do this ?

ME: Absolutely. I thought that that was what the List was for. Getting ideas for things to do in the classroom is, naturally, important, but how do you decide what to use if you do not have a theory of fl learning? I realize many teachers say they don’t like theory, but every time you decide you are going to do X instead of Y, you’re basing it on your understanding of how people learn fl and that’s theory. I would think discussing it would be very germane.

Some of us have been aware of these related methods since the 70s. Attending
a workshop some years ago given by Blaine Ray, the originator of tprs, I
heard him tell of his frustration teaching Spanish to h.s. students. In
flailing about looking for a means to get students learning the language, he
came across TPR = Total Physical Response. This was the psychologist James
Asher’s method that came out of research in the 60s.

TPR uses (and I use the present tense advisedly b/c many teachers use TPR
either as an introduction to tprs or by itself) commands to perform physical
actions. TPR can get very elaborate but the basic idea is commanding
learners to engage in various actions in response to what they hear
commanded and see modeled.

Blaine Ray was not satisfied with how far TPR was taking his students, so he
hit upon the idea of telling a story. By the 80s, some teachers at a local
(Phoenix AZ) school had developed some materials based on this. My friend,
Brian Barabe, knows more details about this and I’ll have him review this
message. Jason Fritz out of Tucson was also an early proponent of the

[INSERT as of 7/19: Let me correct two things that I got wrong in this original and that I tried to correct before. This correction is fuller: The two teachers in Phoenix, Valerie Waxman and Christine Amderson, began giving conference presentations using TPRS tpr storytelling—in the early 90s, not the 80s. And I meant Joe Neilson out of Tucson, not Jason Fritze.]

The story-telling aspect has expanded so that there now exists a detailed
and highly elaborated set of techniques for selecting the targeted
vocabulary and grammar (despite claims to the contrary, tprs is a
grammar-driven approach, selecting constructs, constructions, features…
whatever you want to call them, to embed in the story and focus on). I have
tried it and find it exhausting but highly effective.

The wikipedia article (plug in ’tprs’) is pretty good, emphasizing the
extreme and way out-of-proportion hostility that tprs generates but
mentioning little of the true-believer zealotry some tprs-ers can shower on
you. Both extremes should be ignored. IMHO, tprs may eventually take over as
THE method in fl teaching. Many old-school teachers claim that tprs doesn’t
achieve the level of knowledge of the target language they themselves seek
to impart, but they conveniently leave out the 90%+ fl students who leave
the classroom having learned nothing.
[INSERT 7/19 a change in what I wrote to make it clearer:] Some teachers want to mix the methods,
using tprs along with grammar paradigms. But what do they test? They test grammar, and the kids know that. A kid who values his grade will start concentrating on the grammar and devalue the other good input. So grammar, and not communicative competence, is what the students will concentrate on and learn.

Again, this is all offered as IMHO.

WARNING: I’ve kept this post short, so there is room for misinterpretation
of my questions/remarks. Please assume good intentions.

Poster Y:
> TPRS first
> meant TPR Storytelling, I think, but now means “Teaching Proficiency
> through
> Reading and Storytelling. ” I.e., TPRS in its current version is only
> related to TPR in that it borrowed (perhaps there is a better word?) its
> title.
Poster X:
I’m not aware of this other TPRS. Did it evolve from the Total Physical
Response Storytelling, or is it something altogether different? My
main reason for doing TPRS is to stay in the target language, so
as a replacement it wouldn’t be great for me :-). However, many
of my students prefer translation based classes (it’s what they are
used to), so it sounds interesting. Can you provide a link to
something that explains it?

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