In September I was a guest lecturer at professor Nyssa Knarvik’s graduate class in teaching methods for world languages at Colorado State University. All of the students were teaching either college or high school classes. I talked about Krashen’s hypotheses and gave a demo of a TPRS-style story. I was invited back for another lecture in November. Here are the questions the students had about teaching with comprehensible input. Thanks to all who responded for sharing their ideas on how respond to these questions, especially Kristen Noelle Donoghue Wolf, Lance Piantaggini, Jen Schongalla, Christine Garrabrant Aguiar.
- Do you discuss these methods with students? Are they aware of the reason(s) for choosing these methods?
Yes, but the one that really needs to understand the methods is the teacher. I found that once I got it, the methods just oozed out of me and the students picked up the attitudes quickly.
I overtly teach Krashen’s hypotheses to both high school and college students because I’m in this for the long game. Knowing the theory behind the methods will help them to learn other languages in the future by being able to evaluate the practices of teachers they will have after me. I refer to the concepts frequently and even give some short quizzes over them to higher level classes and adults. When students understand the big ideas behind the way we are teaching it helps them to learn more. See Mindset by Carol Dweck.
- The verbs that you chose to demonstrate for our class were relatively easy to act out but what happens if you have verbs that were more difficult to use with motions? Like deber or gustar?
For a quick demo in class, with students starting at zero in the language, I used concrete verbs that were easy to gesture and conceptualize. Teachers can often find suitable gestures for verbs in a sign language dictionary or with online resources. Verbs and phrases that are more abstract almost always have to be taught with narratives to embed and repeat them in a meaningful context.
For your specific question, the verb “gustar” can be communicated by first teaching it in the conjugated form “le gusta” (likes it) with lots of examples and explicit comprehension checks to be sure they understand that it is used as “it pleases her/him.” Shortly after, me gusta can be added contextually for contrast and comparison.
More abstract verbs like “deber” (should, must) need to be handled in the context of a narrative. A scenario where a new employee is being given an orientation and the trainer gives all kinds of wacky advice and directions would work nicely: “You should empty the trash 18 times each day. You should be very careful not to wake up the guard dog. If the dog attacks you, you should continue with your rounds and then you should come back later to clean up all of the blood.”
With abstract grammatical structures and verbs that are not concrete, embedding them in a story is extremely helpful. The context leads students to acquire what they need.
Because students have been conditioned to be passive in so many other classes, the teacher will also need to do varied and frequent comprehension checks to be sure that students are fully understanding abstract concepts. Habitually asking a mix of questions like these to students with different ability levels will help:
- To slower acquiring, “barometer” students: What did I just say?
- To average level students: What is the difference between ___ and ___?
- To faster acquiring students: What if we wanted to say______?
- What are some strategies for pitching the CI and/or TPRS approach to Administrators that may be skeptical or committed to more traditional ways?
- Effectiveness: The way we have taught world language in the past does not work well—and students are voting with their feet—they are staying away from world language or taking only the minimum number of courses required for graduation and nothing else. We shouldn’t blame them because the way we have taught for too long has been ineffective. Students say, “I took French for 3 years and I couldn’t even order coffee in Paris.” The false promise of deferred gratification is an ineffective motivator. Students can communicate from the very beginning of a course with CI methods and materials. They can begin using the language right away with CI.
- Standards: The new national standards wisely address communication, only communication. They say nothing about discrete points of grammar and focus on language functions. The emphasis is on what students are able to do: building from one-word answers, to chucks, to short sentences, to longer utterances, to paragraphs and beyond as students acquire more and more language. Starting in 2020, the national standards advise 90% target language use in class. I do not see how that cannot be done without meaningful communication and scaffolding high frequency vocabulary, especially verbs. I suggest that teachers become familiar with modern SLA theory and research, the standards, and also with materials that support communication rather than memorization and grammatical explanations in English.
- Assessments: (This will get their attention) The trend is toward proficiency-based assessments. Testing is now based on what students can do, not just on what they know. Teaching grammar drills, dialogues or projects (where they mainly discuss and plan in English) does not prepare students to do as well on tests as using the language meaningfully.
- More Effective, More Fun & Less Tedious: Teaching this way is also more fun and involves less tiresome work for teachers and students. Students do not need to do hours of homework and teachers don’t have to spend all night and all weekend grading it. The acquisition is done in class, with just a bit of reading done as homework for upper levels. It does take more student attention and engagement in class and more interaction from the teacher, which can require some adjustments.
- Do you think it’s appropriate to assign homework in a CI or TPRS class? When and why?
I tend toward only assigning reading for homework—and usually self-selected reading. Darcy Pippins of Norman Oklahoma, a very successful AP teacher, has not taught with explicit grammar lessons and only assigned occasional reading as homework to her AP students for years and they all do well on the AP Spanish language test.
Some TPRS teachers, especially in upper levels, assign grammar exercises as homework. I am not totally opposed to it, but I have rarely done that with my AP classes. Some TPRS teachers believe that discrete grammar practice can be helpful a couple of weeks before the test because students can have the structures in mind that the AP graders are looking for—it’s somewhat of a game, but that tactic may be useful.
- Is it ever too early or too late to start teaching using TPRS?
No. It is never too late, regardless of how you mean that.
- You can start with the classes you have now: You can start at any time in the school year. Jump in and start to experiment with it. Just remember that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. If the stakes are too high, stick with your present program and use just a bit of comprehensible input techniques until you get them hang of it.
I started using TPRS seven years into my career with just one class. It was a group of rowdy, low-achieving middle school students right after Thanksgiving break. I wasn’t good at it, but it worked better than what I had been doing.
- You can start with different age groups: This works with all ages, elementary to college. I have used it successfully with kindergarteners on up through high school, college and even with retired adults. Teaching with comprehensible input works because it introduces and teaches language the way the brain naturally learns it.
- You can use it with different levels: It works with novices through the most advanced levels.
- You can start using it at different times in your career: You can begin using it at any point in your career. Teachers with years of experience that switch to CI can master it faster because they have mastered the other components of teaching such as knowing how students think, classroom management, time management and how to deal with administrators..
- How does one get better at improving their CI and TPRS teaching skills?
For the general human interaction skills: Teaching with CI involves lowing barriers and dealing with students on a more humane, real level. Students aren’t just showing up and going through the motions anymore, so in order to deal with these real human beings you may need to brush up on your interpersonal skills.
Learn as much as you can about empathy, persuasion, wooing and body language. Empathy to get into the minds and hearts of students, persuasion to get them to want to listen to you, wooing to win their hearts, and body language to connect with them at a subconscious level.
Those probably aren’t the answers you were thinking of, but those three elements will help you to reach students more than only focusing on teaching techniques. Being an able communicator is an important part of teaching a communications class. You have to be able to understand what the learner is struggling with before they even ask. You have to understand the deeper, human elements of what you are teaching—and it usually isn’t the finer points of grammar. Students want to be able to express themselves. They want to hear and be heard. They want to feel important. They want to understand what’s going on. They want to be noticed. We too often overlook those elements when we focus only on teaching techniques.
Here’s the answer you were looking for.
For the specific CI teaching skills: Conferences and workshops can be a big help, especially summer conferences where there are demonstrations, language labs, and opportunities to practice in a risk-free environment.
I learned by going to conferences and workshops, but there are many more resources available now. There are Facebook groups and YouTube videos. Observing practiced teachers in a language lab setting is a big help. Being observed as you teach by a teacher with experience helped me a lot too. There are plenty of good books on teaching techniques, but I also strongly suggest finding books on persuasion techniques to connect and woo students.
The originals: Stephen Krashen and Bill VanPatten
Up-and-comers in academia: Eric Herman, Reed Riggs, Karen Lichtman, Diane Neubauer, Ruben Vine
Facebook—There are many helpful groups. The iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching page can get you started.
You Tube: There are many fine examples. A word of caution, the zany, fast paced ones get lots of hits and we’d all like to be able to sustain that kind of energy, but not everybody can do that. I can’t. Find someone whose teaching style and energy reflects your own.
Some Books to Read. They are a mix of teaching skills and people skills. You need both to effectively teach with CI.
- While We’re on the Topic, by Bill VanPatten.
- The Natural Approach, by Stephen Krashen
- Fluency Through TPR Storytelling, by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely.
- Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), by Karen Lichtman
- Learning Another Language through Actions, by James Asher. Teaches Total Physical Response (TPR—not to be confused with TPRS)
- The Like Switch, by Jack Schafer. A former FBI agent shows how to get people to like and trust you by sending the right body language signals. If the FBI can use these methods to get criminals to confess and collaborate, we teachers can use them to get our students to cooperate.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. An oldie, but a goodie for the best tips on connecting with people. Best one is to use their names. A lot.
- Meno, by Plato. A short, readable, focused example of how to teach by asking guided questions. Don’t be intimidated because it’s Plato. This is understandable and applicable to teachers.
- How Luck Happens, by Janice Kaplan. How to inspire hope and perseverance in kids.
- Curious, by Ian Leslie. How to keep wonder alive in yourself and your students.
- Fail Fast, Fail Often, by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz. How to give yourself and your students variables they can control. It’s about the amount of time and repetitions students get and setting up an environment where they are free to fail in order to succeed.
- Mindset, by Carol Dweck. The benefits of focusing on learning instead of competence
- Do you have any particular strategies for introducing difficult concepts such as preterit and imperfect to lower level learners?
Yes: Use meaningful language instead of grammatical units. Use meaningful language instead of drills. Use meaningful language instead of long explanations of grammar in L1.
Use different verb forms naturally and as needed in interesting, meaningful conversations and readings. Stop to ask questions to be sure students understand most of the message.
Since you probably are fascinated by grammar, as I am, invite students to talk with you about the finer points of grammar after class. Some students like, appreciate, understand and even feel they need explicit grammar explanations. Care for those kindred spirits that may one day become language teachers or linguists, but do not allow those with high-powered intellect and deep questions about grammar to drive the rest of the class to distraction. Focus on the message, the sentence we are using right now is what matters to 95% of the class.
- Do you have any recommendations for resources to learn about different learning styles particularly ADD/ADHD?
I suspect that I would have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a youngster, so I am sensitive to students with this condition. TPRS works particularly well with students struggling with ADHD because it uses language in a natural way—meaningful messages using more than just one means of communication. Ci is nota panacea. It works very well with learning disabilities, but behavioral issues can be something else altogether.
- Can we use CI and/or TPRS to teach writing in the L2?
These strategies work well for writing, because they give students language they can use right away. Students also have something to write about. Language is primarily spoken. Reading and writing are late additions and back-up systems to the basic use of communicating orally. Speaking and listening come first. We give students the ability to speak and listen with useful verbs and expressions, and then fill the class period with interesting things to talk about. The result is far fewer problems expressing themselves in writing.
Start student writing early and they will grow into it without fear.
- Do you have any specific examples of working with IEPs with this method?
Yes. See my questioning techniques on my blog or in the Free Stuff page of my website. We need to reach ALL students, both the low and the high.
The things to remember with students with learning challenges:
“Comprehension precedes production—by a mile.” —Susan Gross
“Language is acoustical, not intellectual.” —Berty Segal
A specific example is that of a former student with an IEP for severe learning disabilities, named Sean. He was free to move his body and express his understanding in my Spanish I class—without pressure to produce the language. He couldn’t do that anywhere else besides PE and sports. He took Spanish for 3 years and as a senior earned a solid “B” in Spanish 3—a course that was considered a challenging elective at our school and was usually filled with college-bound students. His mother said it was the highest grade he had ever earned in all his years in school.
- How would you apply this method to a college level setting where we have much less time and flexibility than in a high school?
I taught with these methods at the college level for 20 years. You can move much faster in college classes because the students are more aware of their own learning processes. Spending most of class authentically communicating in the target language is the most valuable use of time. Long grammar explanations in English are a misallocation of precious minutes in class. Resist the urge to discuss grammar with students because it takes away valuable time from communication and adds very little to fluency. Tell them that you adore grammar and will stay after class to talk about the finer points and answer any questions they may have.
You follow the interests of your students and trust that the language acquisition device in their brains will do its job—that they will each pick up the language pieces as they are ready to acquire them. You supply them with comprehensible, repeated, interesting, meaningful and personalized language and let their brains do their jobs.
For college classes, assign reading and listening outside of class.
- What constructive feedback have you received from other teachers and students about this method?
“I wanted to thank you for all of your hard work and dedication to your students. Trent B. and I are in Punta Mita this week with our families, and we are speaking phenomenal Spanish. We have had several compliments on our speaking, and I am very impressed with how much I know. It has been a blast speaking with native speakers, and using what we have learned in your class. I have been communicating with people left and right, and I’m starting to get comfortable speaking the language. It might not be the best Spanish, but I am able to get my point across, and understand almost all of what I’m being told. I was so excited to finally be able to use the language in a Spanish speaking country, and the majority of the credit falls on you. Thank you so much for putting up with us this year, and teaching us useful Spanish that we will be able to expand on.”
Gracias por todo!”
—Zavier B., Former student
“I took Spanish 1 and 2 from you several years ago. Unfortunately, you may remember me from my misbehaving and general pain-in-the-butt attitude in your class, but I am emailing you tonight to thank you for teaching me diligently and effectively!
I took several years of Spanish after you, and even one college class. Your classes worked really well and were by far the most productive and beneficial classes that I took. I am going to have the opportunity to serve my church for two years in the beautiful area of Tampico, Mexico. So, the main reason I am emailing you today is to inform you and thank you for giving me the definite edge on learning the language for this two-year mission in Mexico. I also would like to apologize for the hard time I had given you in the few years you had me as a student. I did not realize it at the time but your teaching technique is superb, so keep it up and know that I am grateful for your teaching me and helping prepare me for this mission.”
—Dillan S., Former student
“You encouraged us to read and let me check out a Goosebumps book in Spanish when I was in your Spanish 2 class. I used to read it during math for fun… now I have a PhD in Latin American literature.”
—David Dalton, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina, former student
“Hi Bryce, Your name gets mentioned often around our home and even out in public as being the only person who could ever teach me Spanish in your college classes, and the person who taught my three children in high school so well that they were able to test out of many of the Spanish classes at C.U. and move to the upper level classes right away! Our family will forever be indebted to you! The Spanish that I remember is what I learned from you at Aims Community College. I would love to increase my knowledge and conversational abilities again because, as a school psychologist, the combined skills are much needed. My son is a bilingual school psychologist and he uses his skills daily. Your TPRS method of teaching is what helped us both to learn! Thanks Bryce! Sincerely,”
—Erin P., school psychologist
Former college student of Bryce’s and mother of three of Bryce’s former high school students
For additional teacher comment, see the bottom of his document: CSU Reposnse