Review of thread on moretprs re CI

My take on this thread is that it continues the discussion labeled “drift” that started a couple of years ago in response to a number of suggestions for tweaking tprs. To some of us, the issue in these suggestions lay in the apparent – to us – looseness of the grasp on just what tprs is in the suggestions made. Drift is commonly discussed in traditional linguistics to note the way a language gradually drifts in one direction or another, some drifts becoming standardized in the language and others disappearing into the ether of linguistic history. So it was not considered, at least in my mind, as anything more than a natural phenomenon.
The beginnings of this thread (under numerous subject lines) was on Jan. 22, 2017 when Mike Coxon asked the listserv, How Many CI Teachers Are We? Right at that time, I forwarded to the listserv Brian Barabe’s monthly reminder of what tprs is at its basis, the so-called Essentials. Mike then responded to that, thanking us for posting these reminders. And with that, we were off to what turned into a 400 plus message exchange that seems to be petering out about now. At another point, I asked that the list respond to Pamela’s sense of discouragement, not just to help her but to explore the essentials of tprs. Good timing b/c I am just in recovery from surgery and was able to catch up on these posts and then make notes on them to try to pull together a synthesis of what has turned out to be an excellent exchange of povs, experiences, thoughts, theories, concepts, opinions, and references.
I want to start by responding to several posts concerning the tone of some messages. I carefully reviewed these and the posts we may call the “offending posts”. I am putting this on my blog for 2 reasons: I will use a couple of examples of offending comments that will be identifiable and if someone is thin-skinned, they can avoid my blog. Second, I started my blog years ago when flteach (another listserv for fl teachers) hosted a couple of posts complaining about the trend in some thread I was participating in; I just wanted to be free to write without feeling the need to respond to such complaints. Over a year ago, the same thing happened on moretprs when Jim Weiher, Brian Barabe, Dick Detwiler, David Schultz and I (I may have left someone out – apologies) were asked to take our discussion of the role of poverty in education off the list. We did and continued on for over a year, yielding nothing in the way of mutual comprehension. But it forced us to wrestle with complex and difficult issues in an adversarial context. So there are so many things I will do in this synthesis that will strike some as unnecessary, irrelevant, old history, confrontational, etc. that I prefer just writing out how I see the matter without trying to placate other povs. Not that I don’t read and study them nor that I devalue them; I just don’t want to write around them.
The value of all this back and forth can be found in my own plethora of ISOs – every time I think I’ve settled on the issue at hand, the foundational premise, the fundamental pov, I find myself digging deeper, e.g. is language acquisition a conscious or unconscious process? OK, but what is an unconscious process? I have a great quote on that I’ll share in another blog entry some time, but that happens constantly; you can’t seem to ever touch bottom.
But then there are epiphenomena: the rules of etiquette, the jargon of academe, the issue of tone, the degree of openness, the degree of control, etc. all play a part in such discussions, and I would like to dispense with them first. I do so b/c they touch emotional points plus they are essentially irrelevant to the discussion. The major epiphenomenon we are all familiar with is terminology and definition and how tight we are in our use of them. My own observations are that some participants have been OK with statements like “this will happen”, “my students did well”, “in my opinion”, and so forth. Nothing wrong with these statements as long as they are not supposed to be accepted at face value. I will tell you in a minute that my students understood the classroom conversations, but I don’t expect you to file that away as a fact. That’s what research is for and while we all have our sense of accomplishment that no one can take away from us, we cannot be offended when we are asked for clear evidence, for data, that such and such is the case.
Leading from that is the irritant of certain phrases like “where is your data?” That can sound challenging and even hostile in a friendly discussion. It is appropriate to someone demanding a change in curriculum based on supposed outcomes -where is your data? but off-putting when inserted in a discussion of what we do in the classroom. I have a friend who uses academic jargon that irritates – at least me. “I am not entirely convinced that…” and “I am inclined to agree with you…..” are fine from a lectern but not in a phone conversation about getting together for coffee. I put up with it b/c he’s my friend but if we are writing for a larger audience, we might want to evaluate the tone of our posts for appropriateness to the audience.
People’s feelings are tender but in an open forum we must also be very tolerant of diversity in tone. I responded at one point in the exchange to concerns about “tone”, recalling how in the clinical setting we were discouraged from referring to “attitude” in our charting. Tone and attitude are made up of microbehaviors (new prefix for me but a useful one) that can be referred to and described. “This kind of post gets very old….” is an example of wording that irritates; it’s better than “this is b.s.” or “this crap gets old” but zeroing in on the offending comment at least allows the offender to restate it (and the complainer did that, so it is just the phrasing I am referring to here).
I have many examples of what I call unhelpful vitriol. But those are nothing. I will be open here (with permission): a long time ago, Terry Waltz was prominent on another listserv advocating for tprs. The hatred for her went far beyond the listserv. Because they mistakenly thought I would take sides, some of the perpetrators shared with me what they were doing: checking up on Terry’s employment history, talking to acquaintances where she worked, tracking – one might say stalking – her even in her employment. They spilled as much as they legally could onto the listserv. All in an attempt to squelch her voice. And these were very good people, nice people, but so enraged at Terry’s refusal to ——- wait for it —— make concessions. Terry does not back down and they wanted her to concede that their treasured and truly creative efforts, all sincere and wonderful and many of which I used, have an effect on acquisition. Nope, she said.
So I know others of you have faced vitriol and urge you not to spill it over unto others – even if in your heart of hearts you know they deserve it 🙂
Personality is a big part of how we read things and I do hope to put stuff on my blog similar to what Deborah Tannen does in books like “You Just Don’t Understand” and “I Only Tell You This Because I Love You”. So much communication gets filtered through our personality, what we refer to as how we perceive things, how we frame things, etc. I, for instance, have a peculiar doggedness about certain matters. I just finished Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations article and annotated almost every line – just pushing, pushing, pushing. Some people perceive that as badgering – I call it running it down until the last dog dies. One exchange, between two of the major participants in this exchange, exemplifies the worst and the best, where one made some snide remarks and the object responded in a measured tone….. but did go right on to make loose statements, unsupported impressions, with no sign of accountability, etc. Context is everything, and these statements could be accepted in a casual, off-hand context but objected to in an on-going battle of over 400 posts.
My last and most flame-engendering statement. Brian Barabe can tell you that when I entered teaching at age 46, I was really wet behind the ears. It never occurred to me that using f***ing as a descriptive adjective attached to most anything would ever offend as long as no children were around. I may be making this up, but after one teachers lounge ice-chest experience and Brian told me that some teachers object to such language, I naively remonstrated with him that there had been no kids around. Go ahead and laugh. This goes to what I call the teacher profile. There is a teacher culture. I do believe that some of the discomfort among listserv members might come from this clash between those embedded in the teacher culture and those less attached to it. I was totally detached and watched with fascination as my awareness and sensitivity grew. Then I started teaching in a Catholic school. Advisement: when discussing the day’s schedule, do not ask when “this Mass stuff will be over.” Part of this is just support, what I call “don’t be confrontive with Marci, she is going through a bad divorce”. Kindness and tolerance must prevail among us as we confront an increasingly hostile society, fed garbage by the GERM people (Global Educational Reform Movement). But equally, in defined areas like listservs for professionals, we should be able to confront and challenge.
Now to the nitty-gritty.
At some point, the notion of noise was introduced. This sounds like a technical term but I believe everyone understood in the context of the exchange that it refers to stuff other than an item selected for input, aka a designated structure. This is major, in part b/c noise is possibly inevitable and it is a niche into which expanding definitions of tprs can pour, even definitions of CI. It boils down, IMHO, to how much control you exercise over the items in the input you deliver, from Terry’s 100% transparency to Elvira’s letting students construct meaning from context and not worrying about establishing meaning e.g. prepositions and articles. This can move into somewhat technical realms as when Terry invokes the buffer, wondering how ever can a learner attach meaning to language if the language item has left the auditory buffer; what does the meaning attach to then? That clearly is in the realm of learning theory. But just how does meaning get attached to language, to form?
If we leave out essential elements of tprs as listed in TPRS Essentials [] assuming the list is acceptable to all, then why do that? And if we want to leave out something, are we willing to live with the consequences of so doing? That’s what bedevils a lot of tprs-ers: you change the recipe and get a different taste and then want to pursue how that taste got in there rather than just going back to the original recipe. You can still tweak the original recipe, just don’t lose it.
If an off-brand of tprs is “working”, that’s OK for you, but it doesn’t qualify as a game-changer. One tweak does not make for a change in the recipe and we are at the mercy of the tweakers that their tweak indeed got the results they say it got. This is in no way to discourage innovation, but let’s not heap scorn on the skeptical, calling them nay-sayers, etc. I think any major paradigm shift will be bedecked with prickly conflicts as everyone plays with the product. There may be “classic trps”, and if there is, we are in for a bumpy ride when we challenge it. Just stay humble and e-mail us with “I did this and this happened – wanna try it?” If you place yourself on a soap box or a pedestal, you may get a few asking “just who are you?”
For instance ……………….. guess what? I have never practiced tprs. Just who am I? Chutzpah is my middle name.
But back to classic tprs. We are just saying, let’s make sure new comers know the essentials and are given training to acquire them even if it takes a long time to get smooth. If the new comer gets discouraged, let’s make sure they’ve got the essentials down to a reasonable degree so they can truly say, “This doesn’t work for me.” Casting the classicists as restricting academic freedom or stifling innovation or arrogating the definition of tprs to themselves is to misunderstand their intent. When they see an impression given that tprs is a kind of wide-open Wild West and they bore in to correct that notion, they are only reminding new comers that there does exist a body of classic tprs that should be thoroughly understood before embarking on a reformation. That is pretty much the way most paradigm blasters work: they apprentice, become masters, then introduce their own flourishes.
There are plenty of murky areas in SLA, interlanguage being one of them. Certainly a learner is going to have his own version of L2, but one version of CI, the tprs version IMHO, says that will occur only outside the instructed situation as the learner reaches out to make language. Another version says that is the norm and must occur as each learner pulls the input together into his own speech. The tprs version wants to exercise control over the acquisition, knowing full well that that may not be entirely possible; the other version might actively encourage the learner to reach out – watch videos, talk to people, read poems, articles, cartoons, etc. One of the lines of arguments in the exchange here is the distinction between optimal input vs naturalistic input, optimal referring to the tightly controlled, naturalistic to what happens anytime a language community finds itself hosting a non-member. No control in the latter case. Terry, I believe, makes the case that optimal CI moves acquisition along faster. An issue like that is surely amenable to research but will that ever take place?
Here, Terry lays out in very clear principles the reason circling need not be confining and in the process she reveals the paths by which misunderstanding develops:
“The only hallmark of a circling question versus any other question is that the information has already been established by the class. So there is no reason circling questions should not reflect “higher order thinking”.

In classic TPRS there are two types of questions: circling questions (information already established, everyone “knows” the answer already) and fishing questions (open-ended, aimed at obtaining new information). Either of these could be the most mundane question imaginable or a very sophisticated question, just as a TPRS “story” or conversation could focus on any subject matter at all, not just someone going on a quest to find a blue cat (another frequent and misguided criticism of classic TPRS).

Characterizing circling as a “rote memorized skill” suggests that your ideas about it are staying very much more towards the “yes, no, taco, Juan” level of traditional first-day training in circling, aimed primarily at getting new teachers to realize there are multiple questions possible in the first place. I’m also guessing you still train circling with a chart.

This is a common misconception about circling that comes, IMO, from the fact that circling is commonly taught using only “beginner” sentences. Obviously if no one ever circles anything more interesting than “Bob wants a car”, there will not be much higher-level thinking involved. But even that simple sentence gets more interesting — even when circled — when a fact is fished for and added, like “why”. And when you get into circling a complex sentence with a time component, adverbial clauses, and so on…the possibilities expand exponentially. Because that’s just good input. Circling is good teaching of good input.

I repeat: if circling becomes “contrived, patronizing and predictable”, it’s not good circling. Circling done right is not discretely perceived by the student, therefore that doesn’t happen.”
To introduce my own idea, I refer to the whole T1 and T2 issue, incl.NT (all confused me for some time in reading this exchange). What seems to underlie this is that learners need some CI (or just input?) to acquire language but need some other input to just nudge them along so that they can follow the story without necessarily having acquired the language. To go with “just good enough” to follow the story seems TO ME to violate what tprs and CI are. But that’s just me. That’s what I did for years and students learned L2 to a degree unknown to their peers in other classes, but the tprs model seemed to fulfill the requirements for full acquisition without the randomness of natural acquisition. The student will no doubt produce L2 outside the classroom, but that is a by-product of total comprehension, not its purpose.
What about that slumbering beast beneath our feet – output? When will our students be able to produce beautifully formulated ministerial reports to submit to the Home Office? The answer I can give is just this: when I can understand a good deal of a language, what I need to say is there. I can go off on the phony models of perfect output offered up to us anecdotally, but delving into the cases I can, I find that such perfect outputters often had governesses who spoke to them in L2, L3, etc. (Vladimir Nabokov) or parents (my boss at B. Dalton Booksellers) or an immersion school (our Bulgarian foreign exchange student who spoke fluent Spanish), etc. Look at the prose produced by educated people in our own society (and those who know me know I am not talking about “proper English”); it limps. Writing well is really hard.
Along with interlanguage, we have the interesting vs compelling input issue, one I think we are not ready to take on as a profession as many of our teachers have enough trouble conjuring up something interesting. Bravo for those who manage that! Ben feels he has entered a good realm and he fiercely protects what he has wrought. He reminds me of my own insistence on teaching not only in my social studies classes but in my Russian, Spanish, and Latin classes the origin, nature, and function of institutions and how we support and defend them, not vice versa. In the last 73 days, I hope what I taught them helps them understand what is happening to our country.
Ben raises another issue that has always intrigued me but would be hard to research: does compelling input shorten the acquisition time or the number of reps necessary o algo por el estilo? My belief, based on my personal language learning, is that it does. Another area of research.
Byron brings up Butzkam, correctly positioning him as a weirdo. The reason I despise Butzkam is that he is the epitome of “we’ve always done it that way,” “how dare you question the Great Poo Bah,” and “it just makes sense that….” My blog post on Butzkam can be found here:

My response to Butzkamm article re Krashen

Tina expresses the heart of the issue:
“A mere classroom teacher ponders…what are we trying to get kids to “acquire”?
Parts of the language or the language?
Some say they teach for “micro-fluency” and thus would say, “I want them to acquire useful chunks of the language, so they can start outputting sooner”. (I suppose that is the goal since “fluency” implied output, right?). These people are aiming for kids to “acquire” parts of the language.
I put “acquire” in quotes because I just looked up “what is language acquisition” and the internet seems to agree that this is not “language acquisition”. Language acquisition is more holistic in nature. So, my question is, is there some definition of “language acquisition” that includes “acquire the verb tenner” or “acquire the past progressive”? That is, can we be said to “acquire” structures or words?
Others are aiming for kids to hear as much linguistic raw material as possible and still comprehend the messages. These people are aiming for kids to acquire the language, and trusting that the parts will be assembled in the students’ Language Acquisition Devices into useable interlanguage.”

As I read Tina’s post, she says that what is in her first paragraph is not language acquisition. Agreed. Output has nothing to do with it.(I tend not to use ‘fluency’ b/c there is no settled operative definition that fl teachers follow – see ACTFL Guidelines where proficiency is the model). I don’t think “holistic” is appropriate here but I see what Tina means: discrete item acquisition and pattern acquisition, the recalling of vocabulary work and grammar paradigms of legacy teaching. Before I give a highly personal response to that question, let me say that linguistic raw material has to be processed, which is what is meant here by “comprehend”. What is then acquired, following Tina’s formulation, has to be assembled by the LAD and even then it gets assembled only into “useable” interlanguage.
To me that sounds like a step-wise process for which we have no information. Just how does acquisition occur and what does it operate on? If on words, we can use simple recall, which I do all the time, to pull up needed words i.e. the lexicon. (vocabulary and lexicon are two different things but most teachers want lexical items, not just vocabulary items). However, if a paradigm is being operated on, that is different. The parts being assembled must be the morphology and the syntax and how does that happen? In my personal language learning experience, and this gets to Ben’s question about short cuts to acquisition, a critical moment of comprehension can lock in a paradigm e.g. when the kid erased my blackboard and stalked away, saying “estuvo”. The “sense”, if you will, of the preterit of “estar” in Spanish sank in a little deeper for me at that moment, much deeper than my hours of grammar study had accomplished. IMHO, the only way to bring about those moments of locking in the sense, be it of a word or of a pattern like tense or pragmatics, is tons of input, most in reading. In a tprs class in Spanish, hours of input would provide occasions like that.
For me acquisition means no thought. I happily noted the tprs term “falls out of your mouth” to designate knowing a chunk of language without having to think about it. I’ve posted elsewhere how a returning missionary told me I was wrong for using the accusative case in Russian for the object of ‘looking for’, as in “I’m looking for a book.” He wanted the genitive case. After he left I checked in my grammar books and I was right: when the object is abstract, genitive, when concrete, accusative. I couldn’t have thought that out using the monitor; I had to look it up to check, but somewhere in the bowels of my mind (ugh), I had dredged up that construction.

All CI should be grist for the mill. As Terry says, offering a translation of a word or phrase is as much grist as is something embedded in a story. But as we masticate all of this in a tprs context, we might want to look at how other theoretical positions tackle the teaching task. The ACTFL publication by Glisan and Donato goes into the theory and that would provide a counterpoint to how we approach this in a tprs context.
We all approach language and teaching in our own way. I love SLA and grammar and cross-linguistic comparisons and, most of all, the history of the language. Others prefer honing their communication skills. Others delve deeply into literature. Some just love turning kids on to language. We have every right to use methods, techniques, approaches and gimmicks however we want, we just have to respect the integrity of those who provide us with these via their teaching, publication, and modeling.


  1. Brian Barabe says:

    Pat, I want to clarify your story about “estuvo.” A native Spanish speaker erased your board and upon finishing said “estuvo.” Estuvo was not written on the board, and the person who acquired this use of the preterite of estar was you, not the kid; the kid muttering the word allowed you to lock in this instance of estuvo in a way that had escaped you previously. (For readers who may wonder how I can comment, Pat has told me this anecdote many times.)

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      Yes, Brian. I realize, on reading your comment, that I was very unclear in laying out that incident.

  2. Terry Waltz says:

    Nice post, Pat!

    One thing — I do not advocate for 100% transparency. Far from it. I advocate for 100% comprehensibility. In the context of the discussion on the list, 100% transparency means glossing every single morpheme or tiny sliver of language. That is grammar-gazing to me and is often employed in the hopes that students will mentally use their knowledge of what a little piece means to build words or sentences using that little piece (aka “rules and output”, really).

    Maybe I can better express what I mean by calling it “100% simultaneous comprehension of the message”: the student knows what each phrase or sentence means (at the TPRS levels for TPRS input, without guessing) at the time each is heard.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      OK. I see the distinction. Transparency was a new term for me anyway and I should I have checked my understanding of it before including it in the review. But now we have a clarification that will help everybody. Thanks.

  3. Judith Dubois says:

    Thankyou, Pat. This is a clear explanation of a discussion that I found hard to follow. And thank you, Terry, for the distinction between 100% comprehensible and 100% transparent.

  4. Bess Hayles says:

    Thank you, Pat! I really loved your comments on “circling” and the clarification of that skill. In my mind, there is no CI without knowing the skill of circling. Even if you can’t explicitly explain it, it’s what a good CI teacher does, IMO. It’s also a reason why I don’t understand why Movie Talk or Embedded Reading are their own category under the CI umbrella. In my mind, the skills I learned in my TPRS training about establishing meaning and engaging students are the bread and butter of TPRS and the stories are just extra. I’m sure others would disagree, but I consider myself a 100% TPRS teacher, even if I don’t tell a story every day. I feel like if I’m talking to my kids, personalizing the language, and asking questions (using the TPRS skills I’ve learned), I’m doing TPRS.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      From the beginning of my exposure to tprs, it was made clear that some tprs-ers never get out of PQA and that works just fine. I’m still looking for the algorithm I can apply to whatever people say they are doing to see if it does the job. Getting a match between meaning and form is the essence but getting that embedded in the brain is another matter.

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