I have presented about TPRS in the Methods of Teaching Foreign Languages classes at two large regional universities lately. I have met some sharp students that make me hopeful for the future of our profession.  Their professors seem to be doing a good job with them, judging by the interaction in class.  Several of the college students have also been observing my classes lately and have had some good questions about TPRS.

Here is an insightful question by a university student that is conceptualizing her student teaching experience and how she can teach with TPRS within the constraints of a school district where every element of every lesson is spelled out with long lists of vocabulary.  

Feel free to add your input to my answers. 

Elizabeth writes:

I was looking at the curriculum guides for the school district where I will be doing my student teaching and was wondering how manageable it will be to cover all of that information. It seems like a lot. “Covering” to me carries the stigma of plowing ahead without student understanding. I was wondering how you managed to do this.


Good question!  I have reviewed the materials that you attached from the school district where you will be doing you student teaching. They seem to run a tight ship. Lots of work went into those materials. The first document, the curriculum map is sound–those seem like useful things for students to learn.  And I think you have some real insight even before you have already started to teach–“covering” material is not the same thing as students knowing it and being able to use it. When students can use the vocabulary and structures confidently and without hesitation, then they know it.  Teaching something does not mean the students have learned it.

That school district’s curriculum follows the ACTFL standards and guidelines very closely. Unfortunately those standards lean more towards rules-and-forced-output based teaching rather than on teaching with comprehensible input. A big problem with a curriculum like that one is that it is so expansive.  The sheer number of items to teach is overwhelming if you take it seriously.  It is unreasonable to teach that much material and expect most of the students to be able to use it fluently and confidently. Having students study long lists of of words does not equal long term language acquisition, even though it may be good enough for bright students to pass as test.

Faced with that, there are a few likely scenarios that a new teacher like you will play out:

1) Just go through the motions. Do the minimum to get by. Sometimes it seems like the kids don’t care that much, their parents just want free babysitting  and administrators just want decent test scores and as few problems as possible. No one else is trying all that hard, why should you?

2) Work till you drop. Stay up every night searching for or creating wonderful games and materials (mostly output-based) that will finally get the kids to learn, and then stay up even later grading all of the worksheets, quizzes and projects that the beleaguered students are turning back in to you.

3) Blame it on the students. Internalize something like: “These kids are all just lazy and stupid.” This is the ultimate dishonorable retreat and many teachers live there for the rest of their miserable careers. When I start to think that there is someone lazy and stupid in the classroom it usually winds up being me.

4) Adjust your tack. This option is an escape from the traps above. Instead of attempting to sail into the wind, go sideways. Attack the flank. Shift the way you confront the problem of so much to teach and so little time by focusing on the students and using the most high frequency words in those massive vocabulary lists.. This approach involves the realization that if you just talk to the kids, you will eventually wind up covering most of the topics in the curriculum and usually more.  Ask them about their lives. Create fanciful stories with them. Play with them. Give them tons of happy comprehensible input. Compelling stuff in the target language that they can all understand. Make them feel part of the secret language club because they can actually understand and speak. Talk about stuff they can’t ignore because it is so engaging. Refer back to the curriculum often to be sure you are hitting all of the required topics, but then turn your gaze  back to the students.

We just met, but option #1 doesn’t seem like it would fit you.  Many idealistic new teachers choose option #2 and work themselves to a frazzle.  There are some traditional teachers that I know that can seemingly pull off option #2 year after year, but I was not able to do it because I was so frustrated with my students’ lack of fluency despite my efforts. That is why I switched to TPRS. Later, when they have become broken by the system and can’t face the fact that there must have been something wrong with their own methods of teaching, far too many teachers choose the ghastly option #3. I pray that you never come to that.

The degree to which you can use TPRS in your student teaching situation depends a lot on your cooperating teacher.