Elaine’s Good Question

February 8, 2008

In a listserve post (#90219) about how I assess kids who are very weak in either auditory (stories) or vocabulary list memorization (visual), I had written the following:
“These accommodations are an earned privilege. Of course, in 504 type situations, I must accommodate. With primarily auditory kids, my accommodations reflect a complete absence of the district vocabulary tests on their grade. On the other hand, with primarily visual learners, my accommodations reflect just the opposite – an absence of grades connected to our auditory work.

“Grading kids on their strengths, visual or auditory, and not their weaknesses, brings a lot of good will from parents and kids and eliminates a lot of needless conflict for me. My job is their success. But such arrangements are not available to kids who have the ability to learn the vocabulary lists but are just too lazy to do so.”

Then Elaine wrote to me:

“Okay, please explain this. How do you accommodate the auditory learners and how do you accommodate the visual learners. Please explain the details of these arrangements… And, on average, about how many students each year do you make time for these arrangements?”

So I wrote back to her:

“Our first parent conferences are in October each year. By then I know if a kid is weak in either listening (low story grades) or in visual learning (memorization of vocabulary lists outside of class). If the kid is trying (key point) and just can’t do it, I look in the computer, print the grades, bring them to the parent conference, and, if the parents and the child feel it is best for the child to not feel the pressure of either taking tests on stories or memorizing, whichever they are weak at, I ask the parents about the kid’s history, learning style, etc. and with the parent and kid involved, we all agree to simply not grade story tests if they are visual and not grade vocabulary memorization tests if they are more auditory. It keeps the kid in the class instead of losing them at the trimester. Remember, this is for kids who want to succeed only, who are willing to work. When these kids pass my class when otherwise they would have flunked it, they go to the second level where it is all grammar at the high school and they of course have been trained in book learning by so many other teachers so they get their two year requirement in, which is at least one goal we have as language teachers, to prepare the kid for college. The total number of kids this year on this plan is four, last year there were three, etc.”

Then Elaine said:

“…. and do you keep this as a secret between the student, parent and you?”

And I said:

“Yes, normally it is a secret. But I have found that it is a matter of respect. Most kids don’t need the accommodation and they know it. They know that they have the ability, so they leave it alone, even if the accommodation goes to a friend. They are happy to see their friend succeed. It is pretty rare that I do this – I only do it to keep a kid in my program who otherwise would have been bumped out. Most of the kids go on and get B’s and even A’s in the book based programs at the high school! Most of them are visual learners. They just needed a little help through the crazy Slavic first year in eighth grade with all the auditory insanity.”

Then Elaine asked:

“What does the student do when you are testing everybody…take the test too and pretend like they are going to be graded too?” 

I responded:

“Oh yes, they actually WANT to take it, because, knowing it isn’t graded, they don’t have any pressure and they do have their pride. Remember, this deal is for motivated kids only. Many of them do a lot better on those tests than regular lazy kids, because they DO study and take it seriously, they just have the weak area there.”

Elaine then observed:

“I have several students that really do try but just can’t perform because they are different kinds of smarts.”

I loved that sentence. It is so true. I responded:

“Yup! This is a good way to deal with them, bless their hearts.”



February 8, 2008

When Dale and I presented to our district on TPRS a few weeks ago, neither of us thought to bring up the point that, when we do TPRS, we are doing grammar and lots of it. We’re just not doing it straight out of book. Call it embedded grammar or whatever, but TPRS kids get tons of grammar every day. All we talked about was CI (Dale showed a Krashen video).

The mistake was to not make it clear to these teachers, many of whom were new to the profession, that TPRS does in fact include grammar. I am suggesting that TPRS presenters should try to make it clear, when they present to teachers whose primary professional experience has been based largely on the concept of teaching grammar, that grammar is structure and when we speak the language properly to our students, we are teaching grammar. Grammar and TPRS are one and the same. 


February 8, 2008

For French teachers: a good way to get kids to remember the difference between the accent aigu and the accent grave:

Boxers, normally righthanded, lead with the left hand. I ask the right handed kids to stand up and lunge forward with their left forearm leading, as if to punch, while they yell “aigu!” – the left forearm, with the hand upper right and the elbow lower left is in the form of the accent aigu and all that the kids have to do to remember that is to yell aigu when the left hand goes out. Next, they follow with the right forearm while yelling “grave!”

That other way with the falling into the grave always confused me, and always ran the risk of upsetting kids who may have recently suffered a loss.

I haven’t yet figured out yet how to work with the left handers on this, however.

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.


February 8, 2008

How do we draw kids back in if they seem to be losing interest in the story? We ask them to describe one of the characters while we, or our resident artist, draw it on the board. Instant fun!

Focus on one really wacky characteristic, one that ties in with the theme of the story, if possible. Kids love to draw funny things on the board and soon the story will be re-energized.

Another good way to re-energize a story is to immediately switch away from event description to dialogue. One character wants their way and the other actors help or don’t help. Switching to output in this way seems to crystallize interest in a very strong way.

Besides re-energizing the story, dialogues are also chances to get a chant going (I want my money!), not to mention a chance to bring in strong emotions (I want my money! said in anger, while pouting, romantically, etc.). Just remember to keep these dialogues short.

Of course, the best way to react to fading interest is to stay in the moment of fear, keep circling, and let the kids cute answers save the day. But these are good alternatives.

Quiet Classrooms

February 6, 2008

We forget that over 90% of human communication is visual. When we stand an actor up there is a very high danger that, unless the actor moves only in response to our commands, the students looking at the scene will be distracted by any motions the actor does that are not related to the story. I keep an eye on my actors. They get to move when and how I tell them. When I do this my stories are more crisp.

In the same way,  my students’ little movements, shifting around in chairs, tapping fingers, etc. can be very distracting to me as I try to keep the story moving forward. If a kid distracts me in this way, I stop class and remind the kids to sit with clear eyes and squared shoulders so that they are able to clearly demonstrate to me their intention to understand my words.

TPRS classrooms need not be full of jocularity. Good stories occur in quiet, focused classrooms, not in loud, unfocused classrooms. I would rather have a quiet story that is not particularly funny, but contains a lot of comprehensible input, instead of the opposite.

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.”