These are some further reflections by AshLee, a student at Colorado State University.  I had presented on TPRS in her Methods of Teaching Foreign Languages class and she came to observe in my classroom.  The students in the college class had good questions about teaching with TPRS and AshLee mentions some below along with the answers she discovered through her observation.  

Seems like new teachers get this stuff.

After spending the past semester observing in a “traditional” Spanish II class, as well as years of high school and college Spanish courses, my experience with Mr. Hedstrom was, to say the least, refreshing. This is how language must be taught.  In my mind this is not just “another method”, it is THE method. Language really isn’t a subject that you just learn, like math or science, language is an innate ability that one acquires naturally.  So why not teach it like it is?  The simplicity of acquiring a language should be the focus of a world language class.  And if you think learning a language is difficult, well, just go ask my two-year-old.

So what makes TPRS so intriguing to me?  I think it must be the fact that I suffered learning a second language for so many years the “hard” way.  With TPRS I see the benefit of doing it differently, naturally.  Language is so hard to learn through memorization.  One can memorize a language if they have good memorization skills, but will they ever be able to produce it naturally?  Probably not.  Just because a second language learner is out of their critical period for language acquisition does not mean that they cannot acquire a language naturally.  Natural, contextualized, acquired Spanish is exactly what I got to experience inside Mr. Hedstrom’s classroom.

I not only saw Mr. Hedstrom’s students using the language naturally, but I also got to see the richness in which they learn the language.  During the first part of the Spanish III class, the students got to do a “charla”, or chat, and discuss what they had done over Thanksgiving break.  The students, for the most part, stayed in the target language and could really communicate amongst each other.  Mr. Hedstrom had them each write down 5 things that their partners did over break, which gave them a chance to practice writing. When the students got back into a whole group they discussed their Thanksgiving break. This warm-up allowed me to really see first-hand the proficiency of these students.  I was really impressed with their ability to express and tell what they did or what others had done.  They were narrating, almost fluently, in the past tenses. They were even using direct and indirect objects correctly.  And how?  Well, because that is what they had heard again and again in comprehensible, meaningful, contextualized, and interesting ways! (Through TPRS)

When it got time to actually start the storytelling, students were probably thinking that they had just gotten Mr. Hedstrom to chat for more than 20minutes about Thanksgiving break.  In all reality the “charla” was a perfect way to get them talking, narrating in the past, sharing, and listening about real stuff that they cared about.  The “charla” was anything but wasted class time.

That is what’s so neat about Mr. Hedstrom’s class, these kids are learning the target language without so much struggle and difficulty.  These students are receiving enough comprehensible input through storytelling and reading that they will naturally be able to produce the language without having to memorize any rules.  If you ask a native Spanish-speaker, “Why do you say it like that?”, they will probably reply, “That’s just what sounds right.”  To me, this form of learning just seems more do-able, especially if the point is to teach students how to communicate in another language.

Returning to the classroom, it was now time for the students to start the day’s story, which would be a “lesson” on the subjunctive tense.  To the kids it was probably just another fun story, but little did they know they were going to be learning more about a very important mood in the Spanish language that they will use frequently, and in some cases may already be using without even realizing it.  The story called for one student/actress (lets call her X), who was in search of her dream guy, which, most certainly intrigues high school students. They would be learning how to use the subjunctive in context, and would be simply getting used to the way that it sounded.  Bryce taught them “quiere que sea, quiere que tenga, y quiere que le guste” (she wants him to be, have, and like) all in contextualized, interesting ways.  These phrases were used over and over again.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  In this way they are hearing it enough to where it just “sounds right”.  When Bryce asked the students what X wanted in her dream guy, they could absolutely respond with the proper responses (ex. Ella quiere que tenga un carro).  They could orally communicate these natural and common phrases with ease. After the story Mr. Hedstrom had the students practice writing down 5 things that X wants her boyfriend to have/be like, etc. This allowed for them to practice the written use of the subjunctive as well.  The story did get cut off before class ended but they will, of course, return to the story of X and her search for Mr. Right.

After this Spanish III class I stayed to see how a Spanish I class would go, because it couldn’t possibly go as smoothly as Spanish III, or could it?

After a short warm-up, the Spanish I students got right into a TPRS story about a girl in their class (lets just call her student Y). This story was a preview/parallel story to the story they would be reading in class, “Pobre Ana”.  Bryce selected student Y to story-tell about and with, as she would play a large role in telling her story. This story allowed for preview of the book and learning of some unfamiliar vocabulary that would be in the book. It also allowed students to connect and compare student Y with Ana from the book. Reading about Ana definitely was made easier for them by connecting the text to a real live person in their class. I can imagine that it not only made the book easier to read but it also gave them a hidden motive to read: to compare and contrast Ana’s experience with Y’s experience.

When the students finally got to reading “Pobre Ana” I was shocked when the student who volunteered to read began reading in English. In other words, the text was in Spanish but he was translating it aloud in English for his peers while they followed along. My first thoughts were… What? Why? How? Mr. Hedstrom later explained to me that if you have these students read aloud in Spanish they will inevitably pronounce incorrectly and then everyone will hear the bad pronunciation. They could possibly then acquire what they hear spoken incorrectly or may be so focused on the poor pronunciation that they will miss the message completely = no language acquisition.  But… after each paragraph or two Mr. Hedstrom stops and checks for total understanding by asking various questions, in Spanish, about what was just read.  This helps the students to fully understand what’s being read, review the vocabulary, and stay “with-it” while reading.  Spanish I was a success and my overall perception was “Wow! These kids are pretty great for only being in Spanish I!”

Other things I wondered about prior to or during my observation were, “Do these students get enough interpersonal communication?”, “Is this method too teacher-centered?” and “How does Mr. Hedstrom know that these kids really understand during the stories?” Thankfully, all of those questions were answered during my visit.

First of all, these students do get plenty of oral practice. If it is not during the “charla”, it is during the story, while answering Mr. Hedstrom’s questions about the story, co-creating the story, or when they summarize in pairs what has happened so far in a story. Which goes to show that this method is much more student-centered than I thought.

As far as being too teacher-centered, these students are not just sitting staring off into space during a story, they are actively involved in telling the story, they are the co-creators of the story. And although it may seem like the “actor student” is the main creator of his/or her story, really it is Bryce guiding the whole story, hitting all the necessary elements.

(Bryce’s comment here.  It seems like AshLee really understands what is going on in a TPRS class.  The combination of preparation by her professor, the experience of my TPRS presentation in her class with modeling and explanations, and observation of some actual classes being taught with TPRS seem to have delivered the idea–that and her own curiosity and diligence.)

Finally, my third question was answered when I learned about the “teach to the eyes” philosophy from Mr. Hedstrom.  What he does to make sure the students are “getting it” is he looks into their eyes to check for understanding.  He says that just by teaching into their eyes, one can check for comprehension, which makes sense.  I might fall back on another technique he uses, which is to have the students place their hands a certain way, signaling that they are lost.

In conclusion, I learned a lot from my experience with Bryce and I want to continue on this journey of learning and observing more TPRS.  I believe that all world language classes should move toward TPRS.  Hopefully its only a matter of time before we all catch up.