Why I Don’t Use TPRS

Yesterday I wrote a blog entry concerning the commonalities between my work as a mental health therapist and a foreign language teacher. In both jobs, I found a status quo that was unsatisfactory and, with the aid of an alternative approach supported by research, I decided to try something different. In language teaching, it was what we called then the communicative approach. That is still an accurate term b/c communicative approaches work on output as well as input whereas comprehensible input approaches do not force output and focus on creating an internal model of the language as a way of setting the groundwork for eventual, spontaneous output.
What I found on entering the profession was the standard rule-getting, rule-using and over a period of many years, with the help of not only Stephen Krashen’s writings but those of many other language teachers and researchers, I developed a method that seemed to work better than what I saw going on around me. The major support in this endeavor was my colleague, Brian Barabe, with whom I shared many a pot of coffee discussing what went on in our classrooms.
More than a failure to reach any level of proficiency in the TL, even a 0 level, which I just read in Omaggio’s first edition of her classic was the outcome of surveys of proficiency levels reached, I noted also among students a deprivation in their Fund of Knowledge. This latter term refers to the background knowledge one is presumed to have as the basis for testing; if I show you a picture of the Eiffel Tower and ask what country we are in, I am not supposed to be testing your ability to recognize the Eiffel Tower as Paris, France, we assume you know that as part of everyone’s Fund of Knowledge. I am testing for your ability to recognize what I want and respond to it, something like an analogy test: the symbol is to the place as Eiffel Tower is to Paris, France. When I found a student who did not recognize the Eiffel Tower as anything, my job, I believed, was to teach her these things.
As a result, I embedded in all my teaching those elements of a general education that I felt my students were going to need when they hit college. Even those students with high GPAs and a good general fund of knowledge often were very naïve about the world and accepted canards, shibboleths, and old wives’ tales as gospel. When I got to see how their teachers taught, I realized that not much of what was being taught was being learned. It was a worksheet culture with the teacher talking to the back of the room the whole period or sitting at his computer while students filled in blanks. What better platform for filling in some knowledge instead was a fl class? Culture, language, geography, history, art and literature, reading skills, etc. all play a role in a fl class.
On top of the general lack of knowledge on the part of the students, there was also a trust gap. Many students came from poverty and from minority communities and did not see school as relevant. Here’s where my background in community education came in, dealing with adults whose trust level was zilch. I set to work to see what it would take to reach these kids. One of the first things was to let them know I respected them. I’ll never forget the time some students piped up with how much they liked my class; when I asked why, they said, “You talk to us.” ??!!! Surely your other teachers talk to you, I remonstrated. No. Flat no. I evaluated these kids mentally and they were all good students with no obvious pathologies or reason to b.s. me.
Using comments like that, I prowled the corridors during my prep and looked through open doors. For every teacher who was engaging the students, two were allowing sleeping, chatting, work on other subjects, etc. Then, the ultimate, the teachers’ lounge. There the full panoply of negative attitudes toward students came out. Some time ago, a teacher on a listserv referred to her students as idiot robots. I took her to task and a donnybrook ensued. Apparently, a lot of teachers feel they have to excuse their shortcomings by blaming students. I looked at my shortcomings and took them as a challenge to do better. That doesn’t make me a terrific teacher, it makes me a competent employee.
So over the years, I built up a powerful set of practices and materials to use in class. Bear in mind, all this time, other than the first two years when I taught Russian and Government and U.S. History, I taught three languages (Spanish, Russian and Latin), at least two levels and often three in both Russian and Latin. Russian disappeared from 1994 to 1998 or so, but I brought it back with herculean efforts and was the only Russian teacher in the state for a long time. Eventually, just as I retired, it was coming back in Tucson.
One of the techniques carried over from my counseling days was the use of language to bridge the gap in trust between teacher and student. Matching their culture (mainly Anglo, but that includes Mormon, which is kind of a subculture, Hispanic, Native American, and Black with a sprinkling of Jews, non-Mexican Hispanics, and Asians), including the culture of poverty (about which I am skeptical). Language is powerful, so I used it. I found the textbooks useless until I found a great one for Latin, which I still use. It has turned out to be the most popular Latin textbook both in the U.K. and here. What is it? It is a collection of stories! I first found the textbook when each stage or chapter was a separate booklet in a box. I shamelessly copied the stories until I discovered the textbook was being published in the usual book format and so ordered it for our district with the cooperation of the one other Latin teacher.
It was about this time that Brian Barabe put me on to Valerie Marsh and Christine Anderson at Phoenix Country Day School who were using a story-telling technique that apparently came out of TPR (Total Physical Response) but had added story-telling and so was called TPRS (note this acronym later changed to Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Story-Telling). They are the ones who came up with the coyote image so familiar in tprs circles. I was interested but never quite got to the point of using the materials in the way they were intended. What I did do was used stories in Spanish taken from old Spanish elementary school textbooks.
When Brian Barabe and I took a trip though Mexico in 1993, we rummaged through used bookstores, my favorite thing, and found a bunch of old textbooks for grades 1-8. They contained not only stories but nice vignettes in science, geography, history, etc. and I began using those in Spanish class. I won’t go through all what I did in Russian and Latin but I spent a lot of energy trying to beef up those classes in terms in comprehensible input, very hard to do, even with the good Latin textbook (Cambridge Latin Course), b/c neither the Russian nor the Latin books allowed for internalization of vocabulary; they were still founded on the notion of memorization of vocabulary as a way of internalizing it.
Suffice it to say, I used videos and lots of gimmicks to pursue my goals. Over the years I was successful enough to attract attention and a lot of students. Was it the degree of proficiency they reached under my tutelage or my personality? Was it my “easy” grading (I’ll deal with that in another post). A combination, certainly, but my ability to interact with the students and generate that level of trust was paramount in my mind. Reading Frank Smith and Alfie Kohn reinforced (not that I like behaviorism) everything I had learned as a therapist. Plus my own capability in the languages I taught was not at a level where I could easily engage students; my Spanish had been rated at Advanced Plus in an OPI early on, but many of my students were native speakers, so I really struggled for credibility at times. On retirement I taught a first year Spanish class in a charter school and 80% of the students were native speakers, though bilingual.
Recently, at another school in a post-retirement job, I taught just one language, Latin, to small classes, using the textbook I like, and built the program on the basis of students and their parents being thrilled at the students actually knowing Latin, using it at home, in church (it’s a Catholic school), etc. More recently, the rigor = grammar bug has bitten and I am leaving at the end of this year. Under the circumstances described above and the current ones described in this paragraph, I find the tprs technique and that’s what it is; CI is its approach extremely attractive and certainly use something like it at times, but I cannot throw away all I have developed over the years when it gets me the results I like: students at some level of proficiency in L2, some enthusiasm for the language, and a lot more knowledge of how the world works. I don’t know how I would do that using tprs alone.
I hope this explains a little “why I don’t use tprs” yet obviously favor it and promote it.

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