On another TPRS-focused list, someone recently posted:

Terry Waltz, a staunch proponent of what I would call Classical TPRS, has said many times that TPRS takes a lot of practice and has a large skill set to master, and therefore she asserts that new practitioners need hours and hours of training and coaching, to begin implementing it successfully. I am probably not quoting her exactly, but that is a message I have heard from her over the years.

Hmmm… Where to begin?

Since I have never had any conversation of the person making this assertion, it’s probably not too accurate to say that the person has heard this message from me over the years, except perhaps indirectly.

But let’s look at the content of the message instead.

Does TPRS have a large skill set to master? I suppose it does, if you start listing the individual skills. The trick here, which the person in question does not mention, is that those individual skills are all ridiculously easy, taken individually. We can all ask questions. We can all state a sentence. We can all ask “What did I just say?” Those are not things that are earthshakingly difficult. It’s more like juggling ping-pong balls. It takes awhile to get the knack, but it’s not like you’re trying to sling bowling balls around. You won’t have to bulk up. You just need a little practice.

Do new practitioners need “hours and hours” of training and coaching? That sounds a bit excessive, almost as if someone is trying to make a point (and it isn’t me). I think just about anything requires hours of training and coaching (note: not “hours and hours”, unless you want to go to Carnegie Hall). Remember also that I train and coach primarily languages for which there is NOTHING available, and for which untargeted input would lead to horrible issues with literacy training. Untargeted input, which may require fewer teacher skills to perform, is simply not an option in Chinese, if you are planning on teaching kids to read and write using anything approaching a brain-friendly method.

I am certain that workshops on non-targeted TPRS last more than an hour, so should we assume that those, too, require “hours and hours of training”?

Might “classical TPRS” take longer to get good at than “untargeted TPRS”? Maybe. I don’t know. Logically, if you don’t have to think about what you’re saying or how to repeat it, it could be easier to do. But that comes at the (again logical) cost to the students, the cost of a lack of repetition. You may be able to get away with that in Spanish. I don’t know — I haven’t taught Spanish for a few years now, and have no plans to go back to it. But I can tell you that it won’t work in Chinese at the TPRS levels.

Here in Australia, where I am at the moment, we have had many conversations about the nature of TPRS and CI in general and how the specific experiences of teachers working with Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian fit into that. Indonesian is not a “hard” language — it’s alphabetic and non-conjugational to boot — but there are no CI resources available for it at present. Japanese is a very complex script, though it is partly phonetic, and its structure is very distinct from English and the FIGS. Chinese is — Chinese. Tones, opaque script, very different structure from English. Our conclusion is that these languages require a practice very distinct from those adopted by those teaching the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish, and the like).

At this point, it might be most accurate to state that I practice what I could call COIN — Comprehensible Optimized Immersion through Narrative. And I would state right up front that the primary oral input in my practice is classical TPRS — targeted, repetitive, 100% comprehensible input. I supplement the classical TPRS input techniques with techniques intended to deal with the specific features of the language I’m teaching that are not addressed with classical TPRS, and I use Cold Character Reading and Text-Referenced Writing (which themselves require enormous repetition within texts and a strong correspondence between oral input and readings so as to disallow untargeted input) for literacy.

I think “classical TPRS” is not to blame for being “difficult”. The skills are not difficult. What is needed is a long, hard look at how we are training people to get these skills. Training (not coaching) has not changed significantly for a long time. Things like the use of circling cards are my attempts to make training more user-friendly, in the hopes that it will become obvious that TPRS isn’t hard in the first place, and doesn’t require an enormous investment of time in training and coaching.

I value training and coaching. I think new teachers would do well to get as much of it as they can. It makes little sense to re-invent the wheel when there are people who have taught your language using this method for a longer time than you have, who can share experience and give you principles that will allow you to avoid making the same mistakes they did — mistakes they learned from and then used to tweak and perfect their methods.

One thing remains true, though: if you master the classical TPRS skills, you can go anywhere. You can do MovieTalk. You can do Story Listening. You can do untargeted TPRS. You can do any of a dozen other CI-based activities, even though the specific skills each technique require vary, because you have solid, unconscious questioning and comprehension checking skills in place. However, moving in the other direction, or laterally between any of the non-classical-TPRS options, is not possible without additional training is not viable.

So for my money, TPRS trained well is the best option for a beginning CI teacher, because it provides the most options going forward while addressing issues of engagement in the most effective way possible. And for the “Languages of Unusual Features”, I believe that the use of classical (targeted) TPRS with language-specific add-ons and a literacy plan aimed at the specific characteristics of that language is the way to go.