Archive for the ‘vs. traditional’ Category

A Lesson in Linguistics

January 20, 2008

I heard this one:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, riiight!”



December 18, 2007

When people think of language classes, consciously or unconsciously, they think of the textbook, the conjugations, the rules of agreement about parts of speech that the kids grasp but vaguely. They remember that some kids weren’t interested in all that, and they draw the conclusion that kids don’t want to learn.

This is simply not true. Everyone wants to learn, just like everyone wants to eat, sleep, have fun, and interact with other human beings. It is a natural impulse. In TPRS, we have found a way to facilitate that learning, a method that is as natural as the impulse itself. If  kids seem apathetic to us, it is because the system has made them that way.

In my view, for TPRS to work, we must bring a degree of happiness, of cheerfulness, into the classroom. It is our responsibility and part of our jobs, in my opinion, and we have to bring it to class every day no matter how we feel. That is why not everybody can be a teacher.

In TPRS we invite the kids into our classrooms with the message “We’re going to be happy [tell stories] and you can come along if you want to.” The message is that class will be fun and the invitation is there.  

Almost all the kids in elementary school kids will take us up on that invitation, some middle school kids will. In my experience, it seems that half of eighth graders, a magical year, have managed to retain a great sense of play and interest and sparkle, and they really show up in class. But then there is that other half, already exhibiting the “just tell me what I have to learn” mentality.

Can the instructor send the message to kids that language class will be a happy place for them to be? We can’t change the apathy that we see in older kids, of course, but we can change how we react to it. It is up to us. We can react with fun stories or we can accept their message that “learning is boring, school is boring, and I am boring, so please use a boring method to teach me.”

With TPRS, we are modeling a behavior. Our attitude is every bit as important as the skills involved. Whether we succeed with TPRS  is solely up to us.

If we feel that it is the method that prevents us from doing it, and not ourselves, we are wrong. We must reach across the perceived gap and bring TPRS to us. How? By learning the skills involved, of course, but by also bringing the requisite cheerfulness, the catalyst that activates the method.

I’ll Take the Porsche…

December 10, 2007

A person who is offered a Porsche in place of a tractor would probably choose to drive it on the superhighway that Blaine has created for us instead of driving it through a cornfield or on a dirt road.

It certainly is possible to drive a Porsche down a dirt road, but who would do it? The roads are finally opening up in foreign language education. The kids will benefit, and not just the kids, but also the teachers. They will no longer have to be out in the dusty and hot cornfields of grammar, kicking up that choking dust, which takes a toll on careers.

It must be said, however, that in spite of the great breakthrough that Blaine has come up with, the best teaching has a lot less to do with skills and techniques and a lot more to do with the attitude we bring to our instruction. 

A TPRS teacher whose heart is closed to the kids, and who doesn’t understand the importance of personalization and humor and the human element, will be less effective than a traditional book teacher whose heart is open to the kids. But, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have the Porsche and an open heart?

As long as TPRS takes its proper place in all beginning first and second year classes, everything will be just fine, and the traditional teachers will be amazed at how much grammar and vocabulary their kids learn once this two year TPRS base is firmly established in the design of the curriculum they use. Then watch the AP scores soar!

Hobby Horses

December 8, 2007

Q. What do you say to those who think that TPRS is about kids running around in the room, pretending to be animals, turning classrooms into a kind of “romper room” scene?

A. Some of our detractors think that storytelling means riding a hobby horse in class with our kids, acting like kids, everyone on a hobby horse, the only difference being that the teacher’s hobby horse is a little higher up in the air than those of the kids. That is ridiculous.

We are the adults in the room. We are the carriers of the language. We carry an innovative language delivery system, TPRS. If the delivery system had proven that snorting at the kids produced acquisition, we would use it. If the research said that standing on our heads and spitting wooden nickels provided the best language gains, we would use it.

But, the last time I checked, Krashen didn’t talk about snorting or spitting wooden nickels. He just talked about language that was interesting to the kids. He said that if language is meaningful to the kids, they would learn it.

Then Blaine and Susie said, “Well, let’s talk about the kids! That might be interesting to them.” And now all of us are riding a torpedo, skimming silently through the water, aimed dead on at the battleship that is the old way of teaching languages, waiting to time our jump off of the torpedo at just the right moment to save ourselves, float to the top of the water, and watch that ship blow up.

It will blow up, or, if TPRS hadn’t have been invented, it would have imploded on itself, because it is based on the idea that the teacher, or the language, is the center of things, which is a false idea.  The new paradigm is that the student is at the center of things.

The students get to ride their hobby horses and play in a fountain of beautiful language as they revel in the creation of their stories, and we, the teachers, the adults, need simply ask the questions, but questions that appeal to the right brain, not the left brain, of our students, and therein lies all the difference of how TPRS produces authentic acquisition kids vs. the old ways.

Our children are actually interested and part of what we are talking about! The best classes always occur when we fully engage in and enjoy our students. Period.

We would do well to think very seriously about that part of our work with these kids, the “engaging them” part.  If we believe that the best classes always occur as a result of careful planning, with the focus on the lesson plan, in our cases as storytelling teachers the story, we are wrong.

When we focus on the kids and teach at their speed, doing so on a heart level and not a purely mind level, the kids acquire the language.

The greatness of teaching lies in the laughter and spontaneous enjoyment of our kids. It does not lie in the subject matter. Ironically, when we have the former, we have much greater success in the latter.

We have such a heavy responsibility here – we must show up as adults every day with not just the method, TPRS, but also with our minds fully open to the kids around us, to what they say and think. We need more than TPRS, we need an open heart. An open mind is not enough. To get the academic gains, we need an open heart as well.

Eric Jensen, in his book Joyful Fluency, said:

“…humans are designed to learn complex languages effortlessly. The reality is, therefore, that language fluency ought to be a joyful process.”

the new Blainemobile

December 6, 2007

This car talk reminds me of an old post I wrote on the TPRS listserve, in 2005, copied here:

“My teacher gave me a fender. She told me it was “important” to really look at the fender, which she called descriptive adjectives. Then she gave me two bumpers, front and back. Verbs, she called them, regular and irregular. Important. Then she gave me a steering wheel and a lot of stuff on the dashboard. Pronouns. Very important, was what she said.

“My teacher gave me a lot of car parts. But I didn’t know how to put them together. I wanted a car that I could drive around Europe. So when I went to Europe I brought my fender, the two bumpers, and the steering wall and all. But they didn’t help me. I looked pretty stupid, actually.

“Then I took a TPRS class. My teacher gave me a car, a whole car! She called it a “Blainemobile.” I like it. I’m going to take it to Europe. I feel confident I’ll be able to get around pretty well in it!

“If you are a teacher just checking out TPRS, you may want to check out the new Blainemobiles. Your students will love you. Be the first teacher in your school to give your foreign language kids something that will actually get them around in a foreign country….the sleek, powerful, fun-to-drive Blainemobile.

“Better than giving your kids the fender, I say!”

Quaker Oats

December 5, 2007

This thing on the TPRS listserve about CI vs. traditional made me think of another thing someone told me, in another context, years ago, but it stuck with me, about Quaker Oats.

That person told me that if I had three boxes of Quaker Oats on the shelf, and one was really old and one was kind of old and another was brand new, wouldn’t I rather have the oats in the brand new package? I had to agree that I would.

We are lucky in TPRS, very lucky! We have been blessed with the perspicacity and vision to read the dates on oats boxes, and embrace the new. How lucky we are!

To what extent should we embrace the new? Like Nancy implied, it really depends on the individual. For me, like Jack clearly states, it is best, for me at least, to not try to mix together new and old operating systems.

My kids are simply too precious, and my classroom too much fun now, too much like a paradise, whereas all I can remember from those 24 years without TPRS is grinding mental pain and unending frustration, except perhaps when I was teaching French poetry.

The biggest miracle is that my students have ceased, wonderfully, to be cardboard cutouts of themselves. By running with TPRS and not looking back, a miracle happened with me. My students became real people, who wanted to learn from me, who engaged me right back when I engaged them!

As long as we shut our minds to the past and open our hearts to the future, currently represented beautifully by TPRS, we can make this new CI operating system work.

But in my view, in my opinion, in my own experience, through my own eyes, in my own view of teaching only, for me, it is most important not to mix the old and the new systems.

For proof, all I have to do is think about the old system teachers I used to try to communicate with. For over two decades in South Carolina, I experienced (endured is more accurate) a complete lack of meaningful interaction with my colleagues (not one single interesting or stimulating conversation with one single colleague about teaching during that time).

Compare that mindset with that of the moretprs listserve, and the starburst posts we read daily from such INVOLVED teachers, teachers with passion, with poise and gifts to REACH KIDS, and much more importantly, the RESOLVE to make it all work, to argue, to struggle, to move forward, even if it means falling flat on our arses a few times!

Blaine once said something to the effect that he is not wedded to TPRS, and that if someone were to show him something else that worked better, he would do it in a moment. A most important point.

I think he said that because, like Susie and so many of us, he is just plain tired of seeing the old non-CI operating systems fail the children so completely, one after another, over so many many years, and so he decided to put his vision into WHAT WORKS. Susie has decided to put her energy into teaching WHAT WORKS.

Blaine and Susie know that, whether the new world of foreign
language teaching is defined as TPRS or something else, it will always pretty much consist of the things identified by Tim in his recent post on the TPRS listserve:

“….CI, connecting to kids’ interests, lives….focusing on
communicating meaning, NOT decontextualized grammar, etc….”

Tim further says:

“If we think about what makes TPRS successful….then we can look at lots of things we might do in the classroom that are not traditional instruction and are not TPRS, yet can be successful. I choose not to limit myself or box myself in by a definition that feels like it works today – because that definition may not work tomorrow.”

This is so true. Blaine is only interested in WHAT WORKS. It is up to each of us to decide what that means. We live in a free society. We can choose what operating systems we buy.

But Blaine’s name should be more associated with the idea of what works, and not with any one system of teaching. It is an important distinction in a world that seems to care a bit too much about labeling people and things.

We just need to focus on and make decisions that are based on WHAT IS BEST FOR THE KIDS. If we do that, we will be naturally drawn to:

“….CI, connecting to kids’ interests, lives….focusing on
communicating meaning, NOT decontextualized grammar, etc….”

And we will sense intuitively the deep truths of Krashen’s research, and we will avoid going into work each day and doing things simply because they are convenient and easy for us, because we will grock that we will be doing so at the expense of the kids unless we try our best to do:

“….CI, connecting to kids’ interests, lives….focusing on
communicating meaning, NOT decontextualized grammar, etc….”

Since, to quote Mark Twain, “Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain, or freed a human soul.” And so now in foreign language education we kind of have to turn to:

“….CI, connecting to kids’ interests, lives….focusing on
communicating meaning, NOT decontextualized grammar, etc….”

which is fast becoming, in all our nations’ school districts, all
at the same time (now), not optional but required, and so we really need to change or get out of the game.

New, challenging operating systems are afoot. Why blend them with the old stuff? TPRS is a stand alone system, and it takes courage and heart and more courage and more heart to work, but boy does it work, if you are willing to pay your dues to learn it!

TPRS represents the voice of increasing intuition in our nation’s classrooms, of opening heart, of personalization, of interesting. meaningful, and honestly connected-to-teens’ lives CI, of singing, of dancing, of having fun.

Call it TPRS if you want, but like Tim and Blaine say, you don’t have to. They are just letters, the bone, the label. Not important, what is important is the marrow:

“….CI, connecting to kids’ interests, lives….focusing on
communicating meaning, NOT decontextualized grammar, etc….”

Call it what you will.

Windows Vista

December 5, 2007

When I was having my requisite new ownership hassles with Microsoft Vista, my computer guy, who is knowledgeable and honest, told me that Vista is a superior operating system and is genuinely misunderstood by most people. I laughed. I thought Vista was snarky.

My guy told me that my problems with Vista weren’t really its problems, but that I was making bad decisions about what I could and could not run on it. He told me that, since many of the old software from previous Microsoft operating systems conflicted with Vista, it was best to wipe away all the old programs, and Vista would work like a charm. Vista needed to not be in conflict with other systems to function at its best.

But I was irritated with such radical talk about Vista. Shouldn’t Vista have been the one to make their system run my old HP printer without me having to buy a new printer? How about my Cakewalk Home Studio II? I didn’t care if they were up to Home Studio VI orsomething! Why should I have to buy that new program so that my computer would be Vista compatible? Too much new stuff!

My guy was patient, and when he finished laughing, he again
explained that we were dealing with something new here, and the old really wasn’t going to work with the new. The two would instead work against each other in many ways on deep levels, and since the old wasn’t nearly as efficient and productive as the new, why not just make the changes?

So when Jack says CI and grammar are mutually exclusive, I have to agree with him. But when Nancy mentions multiple intelligences and how each class is different and each teacher if gifted to teach in different ways, I have to agree with her.

For me it is like a race car driver. For 24 years I didn’t have a race car. I had a 1973 Chevy Vega, my grammar car. It ran all right. I didn’t get fired. But that grammar car sure sputtered and, like me, broke down a few times.

But that car was all I had during those 24 years, so I used it. Until one fine day I drove down to Colorado Springs and Susie Gross, still in her classroom then, showed me a Porsche. I took it for a test drive (practice taught in her classroom with TPRS).

The only image I can think of to describe what it was like to teach a Susie Gross-trained 8th grade French I class in April is what it must feel like to fly a 757 airplane.

It was a big hunk of CI, and those kids moved around in the language with ease, turning, banking, a big hunk of airborne CI. It was in that moment that I knew the old way was dead, and that TPRS was the future.


November 10, 2007

To me, the word “spontaneity” defines TPRS in one word. I teach best when I am not tied down with a lesson plan. It is so easy to object to this. But, it is still my truth, and I must say it.  

 A person said to me once on the list: “To the non-TPRS teacher, your description of what you do in the classroom (which I respect) is lacking in preparation and planning, and bordering on just showing up and seeing what happens. [They would say that this is just] winging it. Am I misinterpreting [this]?”

Here is my answer:

That is why I don’t talk to non-TPRS teachers and don’t post on their lists. A person unfamiliar with TPRS may call it winging it. I call it academic rigor and best practice. No other method but TPRS can arm a teacher to teach a class “unprepared”. Rick Winterstein, a gifted TPRS teacher of Latin in Washington, also addressed this question.

He said:

“I let the lesson unfold organically, letting in whatever new vocabulary fits the mood or the story… and it works, because I’m more interested in reaching a goal in June rather than making it to precisely-defined objectives along the way.

“In the course of the story creation [of one story], we picked up three more useful verbs plus one humorous one. I did not have to choose these verbs in advance. Had I chosen a set of verbs on my own and a story to go with them, the lesson would not have been nearly as much fun. Nor, I suspect, would they have learned as much, since they would not have been as engaged. (ital. mine) “You can decide whether or not that makes me a lazy teacher. My only teacher prep for the day, you’ll notice, was selecting a single phrase. As I get more proficient at this method….I imagine the net interest will only increase!”

The 50% Rule…

October 18, 2007


I am convinced that if we plan too much, we lose. Isn’t that the whole thing about TPRS?

Very little in Blaine’s model jives with the old model. The old model offers a controlled, planned, fragmented approach to classes. Blaine’s model says, “Let’s explore new vistas in whole language! Let’s see what we can create together! Let’s work together and communicate fun ideas that carry meaning to each other!”

This idea of working cooperatively with students to create entertaining language, which is what TPRS is, made me think of a guideline we could call the “50% Rule”. I use it every day now. What is the 50% Rule?

It states that if the instructor is not holding the students 50% responsible for the success of the class, then the class cannot work. In my recent efforts to fully understand and define classroom discipline in the TPRS classroom, I have come to realize that few teachers actually hold their students responsible for much of anything, taking way too much on themselves. Of course, this is typical of most teachers. They think they are the only ones who can make the learning happen. But that in my view is the old model of what a teacher is.

In Blaine’s new model, the kids get involved to a very strong degree. Not only must they listen with the intent to understand (which creates instant classroom discipline all by itself), but they must help co-create the story. Contrast that with the old model, where the teacher is the center of everything

Can it be that TPRS doesn’t work for a lot of people because they are applying old ideas to a new model? Blaine’s new model simply doesn’t work with all the old ideas about how students interact with teachers in foreign language classrooms. It is an entirely new paradigm.

And the new paradigm is not an option for any teacher. The coming changes in foreign language education can be summed up in one sentence – teach for auditory competence – and those changes are not optional.

Districts are hip to what has been going on now. In my district, we are writing pacing guides around the standard of listening that is driving people who are tied to the book nuts.  Now, we all must teach our kids in an auditory way. It is required, so that our kids will have the skill in the workplace that they will need in the coming economy. If we can’t do that we need to get out of the profession.

I made a big poster for my classroom and just put it up today. It says:




The first sentence is clear. It tells the student to “be visible” (sit up, clear eyes, squared shoulders). The second sentence tells the kids that they can’t just blurt out cute answers all at once – they have to listen to each answer one at a time so I can select the one that I like best and that will best help the story. I point to that poster often, whenever they forget, which they do because they are children and must be reminded.

Exactly what does the 50% Rule require the teacher to do? Here are just a few ideas. Some jobs of the teacher in the TPRS classroom are:

  • to ask good quality circled questions.

  • to convey a sense of happiness, of lightness. In my opinion, a lot of Joe’s genius lies in this quality of fun that he naturally brings to his students. No kid wants to offer cute ideas to a grump (teachers seem to become grumps when they think that what they are teaching is more important than whom they are teaching.)
  • to back off on all the planning. How is a good story going to fly if all the creativity is limited to the teacher? The last thing kids want to hear is a one man band kind of teacher.
  • to assure personalization, which is necessary for TPRS to work.
  • to enforce the no English rules.
  • to make sure the kids know their responsibilities.

What are the kids’ responsibilities in the TPRS classroom? Here are just a few ideas I can think of. Some jobs of the student in the TPRS classroom are:

  • to speak English only as per certain rules. I have mine that work for me, but each teacher must have some clear way of enforcing rules about English. Kids need to be told.
  • to sit up, squared shoulders, clear eyes.
  • to suggest cute answers.
  • to listen with the intention to understand.
  • to be visible and conscious.
  • to make sure that the instructor knows if and when they don’t understand.

To me, when both the teacher and the kids do their 50%, a TPRS class can work. Again, the old model where everyone just fakes listening to the teacher and only the 4%ers participate, contrasts so starkly with Blaine’s model, where everybody participates. Walk into any classroom where TPRS is working and it becomes instantly clear that the old method cannot survive. Soon the old model will only survive in the minds of those who still think that they ought to teach in the same way that they were taught.

There are many young teachers out there who are getting into TPRS in a big way. Maybe it is through them that that the TPRS tsunami will come. My colleague Amy Catania ( was in Rochester, NY for a professional meeting a few weeks ago. She told me this:

“The weird thing at that Rochester conference was how you could spot the TPRS friendlies from a mile away. There was a crew of youngish hip NYC types that came on by and just ate it up. They were all over our books and ready to slam the grammarians big time. They even scammed me a boxed lunch the last day and brought it by for me. Neighboring tables were very impressed.”

I just love that quote. Maybe new, young, people who have vision will be able to do what we have not done so far in TPRS – create a tsunami. They can make it happen, because they don’t have the dust and rocks in their head from being taught in a certain way. One thing that helps me get the dust and rocks out of my head is the 50% Rule.