An astute approach to the pros and cons of tprs

Taken from a post to a listserv. An astute laying out of pros and cons:

My serious issues with TPRS as a complete methodology can be addressed much more rationally here We agree that:

1. Comprehensible input is essential. Students need to hear and read as much target language as possible. As I read recent research (combined with 29 years as a teacher and more than that as a language learner) I disagree that comprehensible input is sufficient for acquisition.

2. Personalization is an important element in all learning and in language learning in particular. Good teacher have always personalized the content of instruction by making connections to previous learning and to the students’ lives.

3. I think we agree that proficiency testing is the only legitimate measure of success and the only legitimate way to make comparisons between similar groups of students.

4. We agree that good teaching is focused on the students: meeting them where they are and taking them to the next level.

Here are just a few of my disagreements:

1. I disagree that input needs to be 100% comprehensible. Krashen himself talked about i + 1; Vygotzky talked about a ZPD. Students can learn to get the gist of authentic samples of speech given proper scaffolding and skills to be able to deal with ambiguity. Students can be shown the metacognitive skills of using context to infer meaning of new words.

2. I disagree that translation of text can be called reading as leaders such as Blaine Ray, Karen Rowan and Jason Fritze advocate.

3. I disagree that learning a second language is the same as learning a first language. Skillful application of learning theory can enhance, facilitate and accelerate acquisition.

4. I disagree that homework is bad.

5. I disagree with the use of the term “barometer” and “star”

6. I disagree that stories need to be bizarre and exaggerated to be engaging.

7. I disagree that direct instruction of key grammar points is a waste of time as these elements are helpful for completing communicative tasks. I disagree that by the way “pop up” instruction is an effective methodology to be able to say that grammar is addressed.

8. I disagree with limiting the quantity of vocabulary given to students.

9. I disagree that “bad TPRS is better than no TPRS.” I wouldn’t like to inherit a group of students exposed to “bad” anything. I remember one teacher reporting that she taught a whole year of TPRS and never used the first person with her students. I’m not kidding.

10. I disagree that output is not necessary for language learning.

11. I disagree with the use of the word “fluency” to describe the outcome of TPRS. The word has no meaning to professional language teachers. Our profession speaks of “proficiency” in very well defined stages.

12. I disagree with the use of the term “four percenters” as used in TPRS circles to refer to the number of students who actually learn anything in non-TPRS classrooms.

13. I disagree with the use of the term “pre-TPRS” to refer to other teachers who don’t adopt TPRS.

14. I disagree with the nearly exclusive use of circling as an engaging way of providing the necessary repetitions for students to acquire vocabulary.

15. I disagree with the choice of vocabulary, particularly animals, body parts, and some the action verbs used in some commercially available TPRS materials. I don’t think one has to be crude to be engaging to students.

16. I agree with those who express concern that TPRS is too “teacher-centered.”

17. Finally, I have problems personally with teachers whose ultimate goal is to “wing it” every day with TPRS. Converts to TPRS often rave about how easy it is because they jot down a few words and “wing it,” how they’re thrilled not to have homework papers to correct and deal with, etc. There are already enough people who think that any schlep off the street can come in and teach. I find it offensive when teachers start to believe it too and help perpetuate this myth. Good teachers, like good actors, make good teaching look effortless, spontaneous and natural. In my experience, it is anything but effortless. Really good teachers know that when nothing is left to chance, that good planning allows for maximum spontaneity, flexibility and creativity in a lesson. Be clear that I’m not saying that all or even many TPRS teachers ascribe to this philosophy, but I see it expressed frequently enough on moretprs where it goes unchallenged by others on the list. This certainly does not serve to lend legitimacy to TPRS among practitioners.

As you can see, I have studied this methodology, that I really wanted to like. I believe that stories can be compelling “hooks” for student interest and engagement. It’s the implementation that I take issue with and the unwillingness of the TPRS community to rationally address legitimate criticism. The TPRS community is very good and patient in dealing with mechanical “how to do it” questions. However, when things don’t work for teachers, when students (particularly bright students) are not responding to the stories, or when contradictory research or findings are raised, they are dismissed.


  1. Vivian Perez says:

    I agree with everything you said. I am so frustrated and discouraged at he way I am forced to teach this year using TPRS. I teach 6th grade and my students were learning so much. The kids and parents were happy with the success of students. Even the 7th grade teachers always say that my students know a lot. But the whole department has adopted this methodology and I can’t stand it. I find myself trying to figure out things that don’t make sense to me. There’s no order, everything is so random. I have been teaching for 23 years and I love what I do. Not so much this year. I am following a curriculum that has so many mistakes. I am a Spanish speaker and grew up in a Spanish speaking country until I was 16. I have a degree in Spanish. The problem is I have have the same summative as the other teachers and I des agree with the way this method assesses translations and the reading comprehension question are all in English. Couldn’t agree more with every point you mentioned. Thank you.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      Hi, Viv. Please recognize that this is my, Pat Barrett’s, blog and what I reprinted was someone else’s comments. Personally, I think tprs is the dominant fl teaching of the future. There are over 7000 teachers on moreptprs and about 1500 on LatinBestPractices, for Latin teachers who use tprs. Your complaints about tprs are understandable given your background. tprs is by no means random or disorderly but I can understand how it could appear that way coming from your expectations of a lesson and a curriculum.
      I am not sure what you mean by mistakes in the curriculum. I do know that a good deal of the written material for tprs was generated by people who were not native speakers and made errors like the “caracter” of a story instead of “personaje”, but the method is only about 25 years old and the opposition to it was and still is ferocious, forcing people to work in difficult circumstances.
      I disagree with the arguments listed in the post against tprs. And I speak as an outsider, never having been a tprs teacher myself. I do not believe I have to have been a practitioner in order to point out that tprs stories do not have to be bizarre, that obstinate dismissal of counter arguments is not restricted to tprs teachers (many tprs teachers have been hounded out of their jobs), that 4%ers does not refer to students who actually learn something in a non-tprs classroom, that tprs teachers do not “wing it”, and so on and on.
      What I would suggest, Viv, is that you go to your board or union to declare academic freedom to teach the way you want. I firmly oppose any academic department restricting how teachers teach. That would include telling them they must teach grammar, must be less teacher-centered, but certainly that they must use tprs. I underwent such treatment when I used Comprehensible Input (on which tprs is based) and simply retired. I miss the thrill of language learning my students exhibited but now I have time to read books in Spanish, French, Russian, Urdu, Norwegian…… 🙂

  2. D'Lisa McBride says:

    I’ve taught both TPRS and non-TPRS. My students who learned from me using TPRS have a more natural approach to conversation and have gone on to high school to have their teachers ask if they were “fluent” in the language. As far as it being “teacher-centered” people don’t tell a choir or band director their class is too “teacher-centered”. I use useful vocabulary in my stories. It works for me.
    To each his own.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      I just this minute finished setting up daily lessons using tprs with my granddaughter. She’ll come every day until school starts where she’ll be a senior. She wants to learn French. Her Spanish experience was pure grammar and she just laughed at it. I have read through Ben Slavic’s TPRS in a Year and look forward to starting. My French is fluent but limited. I wish she had wanted to learn Spanish or Russian where if she came up with “cute suggestions” like ‘toad’ or ‘back door’ I’d know how to say them. Well, I do know crapaud and la porte d’arriere, but there’s plenty I don’t know. I’ll be scrambling. I intend to post here how it goes under a new category: TPRS.

  3. 伟思礼 says:

    I agree with a few of the person’s disagreements, but most of them are straw men (I think), i.e., misrepresentations of what TPRS people say. Ones that I know, which isn’t many.

    And he/she offers not evidence for any of the claims.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      I’ve met with the writer often and seen his presentations. He’s an excellent teacher and would meet a number of CI criteria but not all. What I take issue with is his mischaracterization of tprs based on the behavior of some tprs advocates, although he does affirm he is talking only about some.

  4. Task-Based Approaches says:

    Those who use TPRS have no academic background in second language acquisition theory. They might have been Math majors or English majors and because they happened to speak a second language, were hired to cover both subjects. Without any a Masters or PhD degree in Second Language Acquisition, they didn’t know what to do and thus got hooked on TPRS, for lack of methodology.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      For over 30 years I have known tprs users directly and indirectly via the listservs I’ve been on. Your description of them is absurd. Many of them are Ph.D.s in linguistics and/or the language(s) they teach. Terry Waltz has two masters in linguistics and Chinese and a Ph.D. in Chinese and is an international interpreter, among other things.
      So my question to you is what background do you have that allows you to make such statements? With what do you back them up? Your imagination? I hope you have something to respond because I would hate to find you are just a silly person making random comments on my blog.

    2. Pat Barrett says:

      This is a perfect example of arm-chair thinking. What do I think of tprs teachers since I don’t think tprs is any good because it doesn’t do what I think a FL teacher should do? I make up stuff, like they were math majors. The briefest look at the moretprs listserv and the member profiles attached would clear that one up. The rest is just as junky. My question: where do these people come from?

  5. Samantha says:

    I switched to CI this year and I am struggling a bit. I teach middle school and its hard to get the kids engaged in the stories. I actually just did a CI story asking activity and only a handful of students were responding to the questions. Yes, they might be taking it all in, but they need some output too.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      Are you using any sort of guide to doing CI? I found Ben Slavic’s TPRS In a Year to be a good guide. You have to be careful when you use output that you don’t expect learners to incorporate what is “taught.” There has been a lot of ink spilled over whether “outputting” results in any acquisition. It is easy to be fooled by the “learning” effect where the learners can reproduce what has been learned but it doesn’t become part of their language capacity. Slavic provides a number of activities that you might classify as output.
      In general, when someone makes a statement like “they need some output, too,” I want to know why, i.e. what does it do and how do you know it does that? Otherwise, we wind up bogged down in a welter of activities with no clear result.
      Thank you for responding to this item; it spurs me on to write up all the lessons I did with my granddaughter in French which will show her growing competence. Now she is taking Korean in college but it thinking of taking French as her second language. Yea!

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