Saturday, February 11, 2017

Rethinking: How I use TPRS in novice levels and how I had to un-learn.

Recently a teacher posted on the moreTPRS listserv about her intense and incredible frustration with TPRS.  Her questions and concerns seemed to indicate that she wasn't familiar with some of the basics (which is understandable).  Several others addressed her concerns in a generous way, and I added to the discussion.  Here is a recap of what I wrote.  I am reposting based on a request from someone, and because I think, well, the questions were really legitimate.  Her frustration was real, and rather than discounting it, the community reached out to support her.

On starting TPRS 
Explaining to students  *why* you are asking questions (aka circling), and how language acquisition works is a pretty important part of helping them understand why you are asking them to do what you are doing. Being confident that you are on the right path helps them believe that you are making a change.  Believing that comprehensible input is (probably, at least in my opinion) the most effective way to teach a language and knowing that TPRS is probably the most efficient, interesting, teacher-and-student friendly way to deliver that input, and being confident about your knowledge will help you stay the course and help them buy in.  

On working with novices or students who may have language experience but not sentences
In my novice classes, I start them with very, very few words in Spanish. and I use a ton of cognates, plastic toys, pictures, and stuffed animals to reduce the cognitive load.  However, I start my novice-high kids (some who have had 6 years of Spanish classes) with the same story outline because most of them have a lot of random words bumping around in their heads but no idea how to make actual sentences with them.    They can do great things with a verb table, but can’t apply that knowledge in context.  

A story script can be as simple or as challenging as you want it to be.  Here is one that I do in my first week of absolute beginners: [Bold words are my targeted structures…rockin’ it old school.]

Week 1 There was a (girl/boy).  [Name of girl/boy] had a problem. S/he wanted a ____. [I use a stuffed animal - in Spanish, a cognate, in other languages…a stuffed animal that you know is recognizable].    With circling, added details, TPR, brain breaks, and first week scheduling surprises, this is a full week! 

Week 2- I added that the main character went somewhere and the [animal] was not there, so they went someplace else, and the  animal was there.  The girl/boy was happy.   The amount of functional language required was about 25 words, written for students to comprehensify in L1 and L2 if possible, with language posted for the student actor to speak (are you a girl? I am a girl.  Do you want/I want, etc.).  

Week 3- we reviewed the story in many of the ways that others have discussed, or that can be found for free by many brilliant teachers who generously make their work available.  

After week 3, I do not expect them to produce anything.  At all.  They do not have to answer in complete sentences (I often have to discourage that), they do not have to write anything, they don't have to say anything other than yes, no, and one word answers.  I do want them to answer questions- yes or no, a boy or a girl, who had the problem, etc.  In TPRS, this is known as asking circling questions, or just circling.  

On keeping it REALLY comprehensible and fun
I should also note that I have all the question words on the wall to point at, all the English translations of the bold words, and a handful of posters with other useful words- like with, or, and, to, for, except; also before, after, sometimes, always, also.  In this way, these common words for story telling are already made comprehensible, and all I have to do is point and pause for kids to understand what the new word is.  I train kids to hold up signs with the question words when I say them, giving more comprehensible input, and use a lot of sound effects to help keep it fun but also more understandable.  An example of this is when I use the word but, a student hums a three note "impending doom" song, and when I use dog, someone barks.  When I use the word for whosomeone holds up an own and goes who who.  I also use a lot of ASL (sign language) and some signs and gestures that I made up myself.  Again, this helps keep it comprehensible for students and requires me to slow down and really consider the words taht I use.  

On teaching (and selecting) structures- rethinking how and what you teach
In TPRS, we talk about functional language (also known as language chunks, targeted structures, super 7, sweet 16) to mean high frequency words in context.  Words like had, was, wanted, are all functional language, not isolated lists of semi-connected words.  Instead of teaching I had, you had, they had, we had, I teach s/he had, then weave a story about what someone had or did not have.  I use a student actor as the person who did not have the thing.  I interview the student actor to get I had and You had or you have and I have.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is a whole new way of thinking about language and has taken me a long time to get my head around it. 

Managing and eliciting student responses: How can they create the story if they don't know any words?  
Allow 2 words of a shared language for student suggestions if possible.
Drawing, on paper or whiteboards is another option. 
Cognates, inexpensive toys and stuffed animals, and even printed pictures are other options.
However, it is important to be aware of possible misunderstandings with pictures especially- a picture of a man running could mean: a man, legs, fast, running, to run, street, or many other things.  

 One of the least discussed (I think) and most important TPRS skills is how to keep your language really, really simple when it needs to be- how to keep it “in-bounds”.  (This means how to talk to them just using those 25 words that they know, and not add in anything else.)  Practicing that and training students to let you know when you are out of bounds (or they just don’t understand) is important!  Many teachers establish a signal that means "Teacher, you have not made yourself clear."  They celebrate the courage it takes for students who admit when they are lost!  

Not Complete Novices?  

 For my novice - high classes and above, I use a lot more language.  A LOT.  I assume they have acquired almost all of what I previously taught, so my language is more complex.  

 For instance, I am doing a story right now with “is hungry”, “is sad and cries”, and “eats”.  (This is from Martina Bex's SOMOS unit 10, Como Agua para Chocolate) They are familiar with tiene hambre, está + emoción, and most can figure out that llorro means “I cry” instead of s/he cries.  But they haven’t acquired all of those structures yet to use them without errors. They know what they mean…but they need more practice.  My job is to give them that practice (input) in compelling ways.   So my story uses all the language that they have (which is a fair amount) but I focus on using the new words- cries, is sad, is hungry, eats- in a bunch of new ways.  Who is hungry?  Are you hungry? Were you hungry after school yesterday?  What do you eat when you are hungry?  Is there food you can not eat?  What do you eat when you are sad (or happy, or excited).  I also added in laughs and smiles because they are included in a great activity about Celia Cruz, so students were familiar with them.  I know they know tiene hambre but I don’t think that they know tenía hambre very well, so I focus on that.

To keep it compelling, I ask things like “Do you eat your sister when you are hungry, or do you prefer to eat chairs? I prefer to eat chairs, but only if they are  stone chairs from Bolivia”.   Their laughter lets me know that they understand.  And the golden moment: when the actor says something like “I don’t like to eat stone chairs from Bolivia; I prefer to eat stone chairs from Mexico when I am hungry.” (Golden moments don’t happen that often, but you know you are weaving a compelling story when they do!)     

Students know to let me know if they are lost, plus I do a lot of comprehension checks (translate the sentence that I just said, summarize in L1 what just happened, what does the o at the end of a verb mean, etc.) in the moment to make sure.  As soon as I am confident that they are solid, I add something else in.  

 I do about 3 structures in one story, not per 3 weeks.  Stories tend to run 1-3 classes to create, then we spend another class or two or three reading and reviewing the story, then I usually do another reading or a Movietalk to further review those structures.  Then maybe a cultural story or short film that, again, uses the structures in a totally different way.  In my case, using a curriculum written by Martina Bex, called SOMOS, after I do a story, review, read another similar story, and watch a silly movie about someone who is really hungry, we are going to watch part of Como agua para chocolateand use the target structures to discuss what we saw, read about it, and write about it.  Since we are watching a scene about eating and crying, I am confident that they will have the language to discuss an authentic piece of culture at their level.  

Sometimes I do more, depending on the level, and sometimes I do less- again, depending on the level.  In my first novice story, the structures are había, era, tenía/no tenía, quería.  Then I added in fue, estuvo, and estaba (emoción). But also remember that I have the present tense on the board for them too, so I can interview my actors.  Era- eres, soy; tenía tienes/tengo.  It is all written out for them to remember, and so the student actor responds correctly.    

If your students are frustrated, you can move faster- until their comprehension level is reached, then back up a bit. If they are frustrated because they don’t understand what you are saying or why you are doing what you are doing, maybe back up and address that too.  

TPRS is Equal Opportunity
[The original question-asker mentioned that she felt like TPRS worked only for kids from high socio-economic backgrounds in the US.]   
I do not agree TPRS only works with students from high socio-economic backgrounds, because it seems like most teachers in more diverse (economically diverse, racially diverse, etc.) communities have just as much, if not more, success with it.  I know that for my students who are labelled as lazy, recalcitrant, pains in the butts, etc., it is a real change for them to have fun in class by just listening and responding.  Since my school doesn’t yet use proficiency based grades, they still don’t get good grades, but they can read whole paragraphs in Spanish after just a month and after 4 months, can give (error ridden) opinions and descriptions.  Yeah, it is hard for them to buy in at first, but it is hard for high achieving students too, since often they just want to memorize and fill in blanks, but that doesn’t work in my class.

Mindshift for students AND me 
Students  have to be willing to listen with the intent to understand and admit (signal) when they don’t understand, and they have to let input be input rather than jumping straight to output.  It is a mindshift for everyone.

I had to let go of my idea of what “good” language production looks like. I had to learn to embrace the errors in their writing and speaking, and not judge them (it turns out that they are not, in fact, lazy or stupid.  They just need more input.)  or myself (I am a pretty good, caring teacher and I just need to get better at being patient and providing more, compelling, input.).

In fact, I had to let go of my ideas of output, partner activities, etc. completely, and start asking myself with each and every activity “Does this provide students with more good, comprehensible, reasonably compelling input?”  If the answer is no, I don’t do the activity, unless I want to do it for other reasons (engagement, class buy-in, brain breaks, and of course assessment).  

Final Thoughts

Languages take time to learn.  That is why TPRS teachers often use the phrase "Teach for June”- not sure who coined it originally, but the idea is that everyone learns at their own pace, and as a teacher we just keep giving comprehensible, compelling input and they will get it.  By June.  Because everyone acquires at a different rate.  

As a 3rd year TPRS teacher, I am seeing that trusting in it and worrying less if the kids are getting it (and working more on my own TPRS skills) does pay off.  My kids who have been on a full TPRS diet with me for the past year and a half are excited, reading, and speaking.  And they are anything but perfect.  I am not perfect.  They still make mistakes that make me grind my teeth…and that is ok.  Next year’s kids will maybe make fewer of the same mistakes, because I will be a better teacher.   Which leads me to my second important thing: 
TPRS skills are really hard.  Highly skilled TPRS teachers make it look so easy…but it isn’t.  It takes practice, coaching, patience, more practice, and failure.    Also, some TPRS teachers are super theatrical and are really happy to pull out duck faces and bat wings and cat ears and wear them (so that the students will too).  And some aren’t.  TPRS works for me because it is equitable, personal, fun, WAY easier than teaching from a textbook, works better for the kids, and lets me channel my energy and love of silliness and the absurd.  For others, who are perhaps differently energetic and less prone to wearing bunny ears, it works for other reasons.  (I have heard some folks’ classrooms described as meditation rooms.  Not mine.) 

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