Archive for the ‘vs. traditional’ Category

How Oz!

February 13, 2008

Speaking of boxes, our students are really just little munchkins who, hiding amongst the flowers, have long been waiting for a big box to slam down on their ugly old grammar teacher witch, and wait, as well, for that witch’s sister to melt. 

They have been waiting for a little dog, someone, anyone, to pull back the illusory curtain of how we learn languages, and to show them how to really do so, which is as easy as clicking one’s heals together and wishing for a story. Imagine that!

I have a message to all witches: look down the road. You will see a lion named Blaine, a Dorothy named Susie, a tin man named Jason, and a scarecrow named Joe, skipping arm in arm in your direction.

Here they come, skipping with joy down the yellow brick roads of their careers, revealing the gold, the pure gold, that gives the yellow color to the bricks. This is the TPRS road, and we invite all teachers to try a skip or two. You might like it! Better than monkeying around!



February 13, 2008

A man was carrying a very heavy wooden box on his back. The box was crammed with books and paper. Someone asked the man why he was carrying it, and he responded that he had to. When asked why, he responded that he was told that he had to carry the box and so he did.

We don’t realize the deleterious effects on our teaching and personal lives of such boxes. We just don’t. Like the man above, some teachers are made crazy by these boxes, but they can’t seem to put them down.

If they did, they would very quickly deposit them by the side of the road, and continue walking through their careers with straight back, bright eyes, a light step, and a lot of laughter and plain old fun in the form of shared language with their students.

Those students, all of them, are waiting, just waiting, for real instruction in the target language, instruction that is interesting and meaningful to them. They are waiting for their teachers to understand that they don’t have to carry boxes anymore.

Dairy Farming

February 9, 2008

[Note: Byron Despres-Berry asked me if I was a dairy farmer when he saw some night owl blogs on the listserve. Here is my response:] 

 Byron I wish I were a dairy farmer! That was very funny. Life wouldbe so much simpler! Maybe.

But we are teachers! Like you, I often wake up at night with so many fearful and elegant ideas about teaching and TPRS. But I bet we aren’t alone!

It’s like my in-services in TPRS occur when I’m sleeping. Then I have to get up and write down what I learned. There is a lot of unlearning also going on. I am in recovery, so to speak, from teaching in the old way. So I just wake up at night.

But I am glad to wake up! We are all waking up. We are all waking up together. We may not want to wake up, but we’re going to have to wake up anyway.

Because if we don’t, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of children are going to flat out beat us over the head with our new marching orders that say, “Wake up now and teach us right! We really have to actually learn the language now! We have a planet, Earth, that we have to clean up, and we can do it so much easier if you just wake up and learn how to teach us the right way!”

Ain’t it great?

Reading and Spinning

February 8, 2008

Spinning stories or asking PQA when we read Blaine’s novels is easy. We just get some target language discussion going after each paragraph is translated into English.

If the book says, “Anne se réveille à sept heures,” we then ask a kid at what time he or she gets up. It may move into a scene, a story, or not.

The only thing then is that we lose reading practice. So we might have to curtail interesting lines of discussion just because we don’t want to lose a reading day. Tough call!

But Susie told me once that they need to be reading at least 40% of the time, or enough minutes to fill two full classes a week.

Finding the proper balance between fun discussion with kids in the target language and reading for fluency in the target language are problems traditional teachers wish they had, not to mention how to fit songs and poetry into stories.

A Poem

February 6, 2008

The following poem, by the elegant twentieth century French poet Jacques Prévert, to me says it all about TPRS, which here is represented in the metaphor of a bird. French text is given below the English for those interested.


Jacques Prévert
Two and two make four
Four and four make eight
Eight and eight make sixteen…

Repeat! says the teacher
Two and two make four
Four and four make eight
Eight and eight make sixteen…

But there is the songbird
Passing by in the sky!

The child sees it…
The child hears it…
The child calls it:

Save me
Play with me, bird!

So the bird comes down
And plays with the child.

Two and two four…
Repeat! says the teacher

And the child plays and
The bird plays with him.

Four and four make eight
Eight and eight make sixteen

And what do sixteen and sixteen make?
They don’t make anything, sixteen and sixteen
And especially not thirty-two
And they go away.

And the child has now hidden the bird
In his desk
And all the children
Hear his song
And all the children
Hear the music.

And eight and eight also go away
And four and four and two and two
Also leave
And one and one make neither one nor two.

One and one go away too.
And the song bird plays
And the child sings
And the teacher yells:
When will you stop acting like fools!

But all the other children
Listen to the music
And the walls of the classroom
Slowly crumble.
And the windows become sand again.

The ink becomes water again
The desks become trees again
The chalk becomes a cliff again
The inkwell again becomes a bird.

Here it is in French:


Jacques Prévert

Deux et deux quatre
Quatre et quatre huit
Huit et huit font seize…

Répétez! dit le maître
Deux et deux quatre
Quatre et quatre huit
Huit et huit font seize…

Mais voilà l’oiseau-lyre
Qui passe dans le ciel!

L’enfant le voit…
L’enfant l’entend…
L’enfant l’appelle:

Joue avec moi, oiseau!

Alors l’oiseau descend
Et joue avec l’enfant.

Deux et deux quatre…
Répétez! Dit le maitre

Et l’enfant joue
L’oiseau joue avec lui…

Quatre et quatre huit
Huit et huit font seize

Et seize et seize qu’est-ce qu’ils font?
Ils ne font rien seize et seize
Et surtout pas trente-deux
De toute façon
Et ils s’en vont.

Et l’enfant a caché l’oiseau
Dans son pupitre
Et tous les enfants
Entendent sa chanson
Et tous le enfants
Entendent la musique.

Et huit et huit à leur tour s’en vont
Et quatre et quatre et deux et deux
À leur tour fichent le camp
Et un et un ne font ni un ni deux

Un a un s’en vont également.
Et l’oiseau-lyre joue
Et l’enfant chante
Et le professeur crie :
Quand vous aurez fini de faire le pitre!

Mais tous les autres enfants
Écoutent la musique
Et les murs de la classe
S’écroulent tranquillement.
Et les vitres redeviennent sable.

L’encre redevient eau
Les pupitres redeviennent arbres
La craie redevient falaise
Le porte-plume redevient oiseau.

Our Greatest Challenge

February 5, 2008

In my view, the greatest challenge currently facing the TPRS world is to thoroughly convince other foreign language educators of one simple truth, that students trained in narrative methods acquire command of grammar in a way that is far superior to students who don’t receive such training.

The misconception that grammar-based methods actually work, when eradicated, will quickly create tremendous support for what is now a marginal approach to teaching.

As more and more teachers understand the true role of narrative methods in acquiring grammar, such methods will take their rightful place nationally and internationally at center stage in the game of foreign language acquisition.


February 5, 2008

George Bush has been a bad president, despite honest intentions earlier on. Similarly, we must accept, in the foreign language profession, that grammar/translation instruction doesn’t help us acquire languages. It’s an old idea that has finally exhausted itself, after decades of abject failure. It is done.

Not so long ago, it was politically incorrect to attack Bush and his policies, but now everyone is doing it. So also, in our profession, what was once considered to be professionally incorrect is now, on the part of parents, administrators, teachers and the students they serve, a natural expression  of strong, undeniable change.

The world is changing, in politics, in education, in everything. Now, strong new bursts of powerful energy are being seen all over our nation’s landscape. Teachers who think that they can teach in the way they themselves were once taught are mistaken.

Phoebe’s Point

February 5, 2008

Today Phoebe made a really good point:

“I like this blog site and have been reading it for several months so far. I am encouraged and relieved quite often when I realize about the higher end of teaching and how it is explained here. I am still in the gap of transitioning from the ‘old’ way with lots of plans and activities to the ‘three words and have at it’! Part of me feels guilty about feeling so calm about it – it’s as though I SHOULD be torturing myself and agonizing about all the details of my plans.

Thanks for providing all this important information. I’ll keep reading and learning!”

I respond:

“Phoebe I am hearing you say that we are not even aware when we torture ourselves with lesson plan details and the multifarious activities connected to traditional teaching. We think it is normal. Thus, we cannot heal from it because it has become like breathing air to us.

“What a blockbuster thought! If we could but realize how complicated we make our lives in the classroom (cf. Merton quote on this blog), and how truly little effect our freneticism has on what our students actually acquire, then we might be able to do something about it.

“This is the hardest thing of all, isn’t it? It is not so much about learning the new method as much as it is about letting go of the old. We can’t keep one eye focused happily on TPRS while the other remains fixed on what we used to do.

Thanks for this. I have been wanting to put this into words for weeks now. If we can’t stop torturing ourselves in needless activities, burning the days of our careers away in a sense of binding frustration, then our embracing of TPRS will stall if not come to a halt.

Maybe this explains why so few people do TPRS even though as intelligent professionals who have done research on how we learn languages, they see its merits.”

Traditional Teaching

January 22, 2008

For thousands of years kids learned languages by listening to them. Meaningful, comprehensible input was all they knew, so the languages they heard were easy for them. Adults would say things to them that had meaning, look them in the eyes, tell them stories, pause if they didn’t understand, look for their reaction, smile and laugh, sing them songs, and, on a good day, even chant. Adults would ask them questions repeatedly. They learned because it felt right, because what they heard meant something to them.

Then, for the first time since kids started learning languages, they found out they could be wrong. Unexpectedly, adults started asking kids to learn languages not by listening to them, but by looking at them, how they were constructed, the pieces of language, etc.

Kids were forced into analyzing language, trying to understand what an adverb is, as if that could be understood, and what a stem changing verb is. They saw that their success depended on their ability to grasp these ideas. They stopped listening to the language in a way that had meaning to them, and they started conjugating verbs. This new method had predictable results. Kids learned slowly. Many gave up and put their heads on the desk. It felt wrong to them. But it went on for a hundred years. It is still going on.

Then Blaine Ray came along, and said, “What is going on here?” Blaine suggested that we return to more traditional ways of teaching, ways that convey meaning to the learners. A few embraced his ideas, but many attacked him as being “non-traditional”.

One is prompted to ask, “Who, really, are the traditional teachers?” Blaine and his merry band, or those who espouse the new-fangled notion that the way to learn a language is by breaking it up into little pieces and analyzing them?


January 21, 2008

Pop-up grammar must be short. Like, really short. “This means that” kind of thing. Otherwise, the story is interrupted and the kids, who are focused on the story, see the pop-up as an intrusion. Their brain has to shift into another gear momentarily and then back. 

And if I talk more than just a few seconds about some pop-up grammar point, I can be guaranteed that few of my students will actually remember it. They just won’t.

I get the idea – if we repeat a grammar point over and over in the form of pop-ups, the kids are supposed to eventually get it, but I haven’t really seen this yet, even in my better students. It is a great idea but I don’t know how effective it is.
I don’t know if the answer is to just take 20 or 30 minutes a week to  do full-on grammar. I wouldn’t do that – my priority is on stories, readings and songs.

I don’t know what the answer is. I dream of the day, hopefully not too far off, when intelligent professionals get together to put off the study of grammar until the third year of study, after a rocking two years of engaging the kids in such a way that they really want to learn grammar.

Like the way little kids learn grammar – much later, after they have learned the language. Even if they never learn the grammar, it seems like 100% of them can speak the language.

So what are we doing when we teach grammar? I don’t quite get it. Someone, some grammar teacher, please deconfuse me on this point. Meanwhile, I guess I’ll keep doing pop-ups, but I am going to keep them ever so short, like Susie says.