Leveling up

Paraphrasing a post I saw on another group recently.

A teacher was very dissatisfied with her own performance in implementing TPRS. She had been to a conference, watched all the videos she could find, and practiced, but still she felt inadequate. Even though her students seemed to be getting the language, she didn’t think she was doing it well enough.

Someone asked her: “How many years have you been teaching language?”

“Twelve years.”

“And how many years with TPRS?”

“A year and a half.”

“So you’re a Level 12 teacher, but a Level 1 TPRSer.”

“Hmmm….”  And that seemed to put things in perspective for her.

You WILL “level up”. You WILL “get it”. But it does take some time, and some practice, before everything becomes second nature. When you go to a conference or a workshop, you’re watching Level 15 or even Level 20 TPRSers, in many cases.  They make it look easy. And it’s not that it’s hard — it’s just that it takes a bit of time, like most worthwhile skills.


Too many voices

Lots and lots of people are going to workshops and conferences and starting to do TPRS or to try to teach with comprehended input. And that’s great.

And those same people are out on the internet, looking for more information. More things to do in the classroom. More activities. Because it’s great to switch things up, right?

Yeah. But if you don’t have a solid base of practice already, not only is there nothing that needs “switching up” — doing so will most likely damage one’s attempts to do good TPRS/TCI in the first place.

There are many, many are voices today in the TPRS/TCI world. Some of them are out there solely to share. Others are out there to make a side income, or a “name”. Some rely on training people to use TPRS/TCI as their sole source of income. Some have solid TPRS/TCI training. Some do not. Some change or extend TPRS/TCI technique because they have tested new things based on their understanding of the research and the brain. Others do it for branding purposes.  Some are sharing their very, very early attempts, and others are sharing what they’ve been doing for years. But on the internet, “no one knows you’re a dog”. It’s hard, especially for a teacher new to TPRS/TCI, to know what the background of every voice is, and which of the attractive new things out there would work for his or her classroom practice in the first place.

But even more fundamentally, it doesn’t make sense to drop one thing and grab another before you can do the first thing well. I don’t think any of us would advise our students to do that. Instead, we give them guidance and try to help them succeed at the first thing, and encourage them to stick to that one thing until they have mastered it, and only then extend or innovate or reach out for something new.

Solid, basic, “boring” (though given all the ways you can deliver comprehended input and still not deviate from the principles of TPRS, it’s hard to say why it would be considered “boring”) TPRS is the foundation for most, if not all, of those “new” things. (In fact, many “new” things have been done in TPRS for years, just not with the fancy new label. Again, an attempt to brand by re-labeling.) Most “new” things out there are what would have to be called “TPRS-minus”. They take TPRS and remove an element or two, often in the name of making things “easier”.

Again, it’s strange, isn’t it, that teachers are ready to help students to stick to something until it’s mastered, but want to go to a workshop and just “get something” ready to use the very next day. We try to tell students it’s important to build skills, but we aren’t willing to put in a few weeks of practice to get a new technique — one that’s the basis for many other things down the line.

So if you’re new to TPRS/TCI, I urge you: just do TPRS. Just do that. Do it for a time, and get so you do it well. And for every bit of new and alluring stuff you hear about and are tempted to try right away, apply the Lenses of TPRS/TCI.

Does it make language comprehended? Not potentially. Not sometime. Right when it’s going in those ears.

Is it personalized? Does it grab and hold the interest of your students? If you’re imposing content on them, it’s not going to be “theirs”. It’s really, really worth the time to build that skill for yourself.

Is it repeated? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and language isn’t acquired without a lot of repetition. Skip that, and you lose the benefits of that solid confidence on the part of students that you will NOT ever let them falter. That’s what builds relationships. Not what the adult says, but what they demonstrate.

CPR. Comprehended, personalized, repeated. Accept no substitutes. Or omissions.

When do you do Step 1?


I think the issue many people are having of late about “establishing meaning” and whether it can or cannot be done via gesture comes from numbering the “steps” of TPRS. Most people aren’t actually establishing meaning solely using gestures (it’s inefficient, imprecise and unneeded in most cases), but gesturing really should be just an adjunct, a mnemonic aid, not a means of communication in whole sentences, any more than Pinyin is intended as a tool to read long Chinese texts. It isn’t, and they aren’t. Similarly, comprehension checks need to be done sufficiently close to the use of the word or phrase so that it is still in auditory memory — otherwise the “linkage” between word/phrase and meaning cannot be made. TPRS does both these things  consistently, and if a teacher is not doing those two things consistently, then I would submit that what that teacher is doing is not TPRS. Find another acronym.

The “3 steps” of TPRS are not necessarily performed in that order — at least with regard to having the entirety of step 1 complete before step 2 is started. So “establishing meaning”, in COIN, doesn’t always lead off. In fact, I advise teachers not to lead off with it as a “let’s learn these words” activity. Using a “let’s review these words by having you do the gestures as I say them” is a reasonable, input-focused thing to do, because there’s already meaning attached at that point. We’re just freshening up those connections.

So, step 1, “establish meaning” can really happen at any moment up to and simultaneous to the introduction of a new word/phrase. I personally do not introduce “all the words” before class because a) I’m not smart enough to guarantee I can get more than 1 or maybe 2 items into a story while still taking into account the progress and reaction of my students; and b) I lose the element of surprise.

In my COIN practice (Comprehended Optimized Input through Narrative — which includes slightly modified-for-Chinese classic targeted TPRS, CCR and text-referenced writing) the flow is like this:

1. Use new words, establishing their meaning using English as each comes up [Establishing Meaning = write up on the board with English and Pinyin; attach a directional gesture (contains both semantic and tonal information); if applicable, pop-up a mnemonic story].

2. Read new words/phrases in characters as a long, whole-class CCR session.

3. Read new words/phrases in characters using more “typical” modalities of reading, using shorter texts, embedding, etc.

4. Write new words/phrases in characters in a composition of some sort by referring back to reading texts for mechanical issues.

“2” and “4” are probably Chinese- (or Japanese-) specific, and would also be useful for alphabetic languages without a Roman alphabet at the very beginning stages.

The case against 是 (shi4)

So you’re starting a new class using TPRS for Chinese.  The first thing to figure out, in Chinese, is what language you will be using with them, followed closely by “what will they read that contains that language?”

Many new TPRS teachers want to go basically the same route as traditional teaching, or maybe their subconscious does. Even though people really don’t introduce themselves using 是 very often in Chinese, for some reason people want to start out with kids identifying each other using 是. “He is Bob. She is Mary.” I strongly advise against this, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just not very natural language. Yes, I know TPRS isn’t known for its Shakespearean (Lu Xun-ean?) beauty of language, particularly at the beginning levels. And one might argue, “But the identity pattern is so important. They will need to identify many things. And everyone can do this with a large number of names available for substitution, using the actual kids in the class!)

I believe strongly in violating what people believe is a fixed order of acquisition. I believe strongly that it’s possible to train microfluency on whichever pattern or word you like. And having said that, I believe strongly in getting early reps in on things that are both very meaningful (identifying classmates certainly applies here) and very typically Chinese. That latter element sometimes means providing “extra” reps above and beyond what you might expect, since things that are typically Chinese (in a language sense) are often not typically English-like.

So, think about it. How does a Chinese person introduce himself? In a formal situation, by using 姓 for “to be surnamed”. In a less formal situation, using 叫 for “to be named”. I can’t remember anyone ever providing information about what a person’s name was (whether his own name or that of someone beside him) using 是。 So I don’t think we want to reinforce that usage, especially when it’s important culturally to teach the more correct usages of 姓 and 叫.

But there’s another side to this as well. One might argue that we do compromise just a little bit on language naturalness in TPRS for the ultra-beginner because we just don’t have many choices (in Chinese at least). So what’s the harm of teaching the grammatically-correct (if not pragmatically lovely) 他 是 Bob?  My big objection to doing that right off the bat is that we are reinforcing the translation of “is”. And in Chinese, the only time the English “is” is really sort of out there and translated overtly is when it is what is called an equational sentence: THIS is THAT. Or, in this case, HE is NAME.

Much more frequently, the English “is” is not translated. He’s happy. He’s hungry. She’s smart. They are going. I am…whatever. Stative verbs. The ones that textbook-taught kids are forever adding 是 in front of, because they are translating from English the best they can. If TPRS-taught kids get enough input, it should be possible to avoid this — but why even prime the pump for the possibility of this problem, when we are going to be using stative verbs like, really really soon (really REALLY soon) and 是isn’t even really the most authentic word to use in this situation anyway?

The sequence I’ve been using with beginners for many years now starts from the Super 7, but 是 is not used in the very beginning. It’s just not needed. And I find it more useful to get them solid on saying 他 高兴 and not having anything that looks, smells like or walks like an “is” even on the table at that point. Then, when 是 is introduced, it’s more obvious that it is working to fill a specific niche — the identification function.

There’s another issue with using 他 是 Bob, 他 是 谁? stuff the first day. And that’s drilling. Because that’s what this is. I’ve observed teachers doing this with a new class, and after the first few students answer (and ask!) these questions, there is absolutely no need for anyone to listen anymore. There’s no comprehension going on, because the questions never change. It’s difficult to circle 是  effectively, especially on day 1 when you have no other language to use. In fact, 是 is one of those things that I try to exclude from circling practice sentences for teachers  who are just starting out circling, because it just doesn’t work very well for that kind of thing. So what you end up with is student after student looking at who the teacher is pointing to and repeating 他 是 plus name. It quickly loses the element of really having to listen carefully to get the meaning, and sinks down into replacement drill — particularly if you are teaching students of the age where everyone must have a turn or else. Or if you’re just making sure to give everyone a turn. This is the kind of drill we want to avoid, since by doing it, the students are learning that they don’t really have to listen and the content will not be very engaging or surprising. On the first day of class, that’s the last thing we want to have happen. There will be “those kinds of days” throughout the year, but let’s not bring them on ourselves by doing drills.

And think about the reading. Lines of pictures, with a single line under each. 他 不是 Obama. 他 不是 Nixon. 他 是 Abraham Lincoln.  This is the sort of thing that the legacy-method teachers give out as reading, because their kids don’t have more sophisticated language. This is not a compelling story. It’s not even a story. If you use 是 simply to identify the name of the character in the reading, you are not getting the kind of repetition on that character that is required for the students to easily “get it”. So we’re stuck, all because of that 是.

I have to date found no more solid way to begin the year than the sequence laid out in Zhongwen Bu Mafan!: 酷,哭, 想吃,在, 有, 没有。  The 在 can be delayed, of course. But with just these super-few words, you have a potential for a narrative, a conflict, a resolution. For any sort of interesting discourse, there has to be some sort of problem or issue or unhappiness or dissatisfaction that is (or is not) remedied. 是 doesn’t contribute much toward that, so I strongly advise delaying it until (only slightly) later  as you progress through the Super 7.

It’s a demo, it’s brand new, it’s me, it’s amazing

Maybe it is.

But generally speaking — it’s very, very easy these days for anyone to post a video or a demo or a tutorial or a whatever, and get very extensive coverage and lots of views and lots of “likes”.

That doesn’t mean that we should not think carefully about a few things.

–Do I believe firmly that my TPRS technique is strong enough to be held up as a demonstration for others to imitate? I strongly urge teachers to watch their own videos critically and not label them “demo” without at a minimum pointing out the things one would not want others to imitate. New teachers can’t tell the difference when they watch that video. Many enthusiastic new-ish teachers can’t tell that what they are doing isn’t demo-worthy yet, either.

–Is what I’m doing really so different and new that it’s something, well, different and new? Is my contribution confusing the issue about what TPRS is or isn’t? Am I really clear on that, before I label what I’m posting “TPRS”? Should I label my video or tutorial as a “CI-based activity” rather than “TPRS”?

–What is my aim in putting up this video or post? Am I trying to share something I’m doing that I believe will benefit others through observation or imitation, or am I trying to build my “brand”, or am I posting just because other teachers are posting and I should, too?

Helping to make sure that things on the Internet that are labeled “TPRS” really represent the best of the method helps the method in the long run. I think it’s well worth thinking about.

Can, or should?

On a teachers’ list, a hypothesis was recently posted:

The more compelling the input, the more listeners and readers can tolerate noise.

Maybe they can. But should they?

I believe that the goal of teaching a language class does not lie in engaging students. I believe it is to get them to acquire the language. Engagement should serve acquisition, not serve the presentation of things that do not serve acquisition. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how engaging a particular piece of language is if it contains a lot of noise, because the noise can’t be comprehended, and therefore it can’t be acquired. Acquisition would be better served by presenting language without noise. It’s difficult to think of a reason compelling enough to force the presentation of noise-ridden language in a class that aims for acquisition if all that noise cannot be acquired. If the content requires so much noise that the word “tolerate” is being used, it is better to simply do it in the native language, or delay it until the pool of acquired language is great enough to handle it.

I believe that the amount of noise you allow in is the amount of class time that is wasted at the TPRS level (prior to acquisition of the major structures of the language). It is the stones in your mashed potatoes. It is language that cannot be comprehended, and as TPRS teachers, we are not at all about non-comprehensible input. Making sure the language is comprehended is Job 1. It  cannot be compromised because the teacher wants to present some story or other.

I think that optimal techniques change after the TPRS level. There is room for much more noise, and room for rapid expansion of large amounts of vocabulary. This is because there is a solid base to build on. Without that base of acquired structure and high-frequency vocabulary, noise is more difficult to deal with (aside from not driving the rapid acquisition that is desirable at that level).

I am not aware of any research showing that people need special training or “experience” to deal with noise in situations where they have to. The best training to allow them to deal with noise, IMO, is input without noise, which is the most efficient driver of acquisition. Between practicing dealing with noise, and giving more acquired language, I would far prefer to use class time for the latter, because it is far more useful in actually dealing with noise in the real world.

C is for Comprehended


I’ve thought about how I teach. And I’ve realized I do not teach with comprehensible input. I teach with comprehended input.


Comprehensible is not enough. Something that “can” be comprehended is not always comprehended. Especially with all the kinda-sorta definitions of “comprehensible” floating around these days.

There must be a match between meaning and the incoming language in order for the brain to acquire that language. If there is less than total comprehension (not total transparency, which means understanding of the analytical aspects of the language) then there will be less than a total match.

Allowing anything less than a total match means wasted time. It’s like mixing rocks into your mashed potatoes. You might manage to swallow them, but they’re not going to be digested. And nobody wants pebbles in that buttery goodness, do they?

It may also mean increased anxiety. Those rocks in the mashed potatoes interrupt the pleasure of eating the delicious, warm, soft mass of potatoes with the buttery flavor (it is nearly dinnertime, can you tell?), injecting the abject fear of cracking a tooth. Have you ever done that? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy Rocky Road ice cream again. Uncomprehended chunks of language work the same way, prompting fear of not “getting it”. Of not succeeding. Of being not quite enough.

TPRS is all about success. We reject the “no pain, no gain” idea. There was no pain in acquiring the first language, and there doesn’t need to be pain in acquiring the second and subsequent ones. We do need to let go of the idea that we can serve two masters at once. Either we are facilitating acquisition, which means providing easy-to-digest language, or we are doing other things, mostly things that other people who are not language acquisition facilitators are telling us to do, like “building grit” or “helping kids to deal with ambiguity” or “helping them learn to handle unknowns”.  If we do those things, we will exponentially reduce the effectiveness of the acquisition going on in our classrooms.

The gift of success in a language classroom is something that we can give to an incredibly high proportion of students through TPRS (or, for Chinese, with COIN, which uses TPRS for oral language plus CCR and TRW as specific extended literacy techniques). As always, I am talking about beginners. I care about beginners because — especially in Chinese — this is when they are lost to us if we do not give them what they truly need. More advanced students can handle a bit of gravel in the potatoes if they have to, but the beginners can’t. They shouldn’t have to. We have only one chance to convince students that they can succeed. The chance to convince students who may never have felt they were as good as everyone else that they can be just as good as everyone else in a language is too valuable to sacrifice for some trendy edubabble goal that can perfectly well be promoted during other classes.

Because, remember, what we “teach” is different. There are no native speakers of math, chemistry or baseball. Only language. If we give in and teach the same way, letting our eyes slip from the ultimate goal of acquisition, we’re reduced to arguing about which kind of rock goes best with Idaho russets.

No rock. No uncomprehended language. And that means checking that students do comprehend. Checking at the time the language is used. Checking over and over to make sure, because beginners are delicate and it’s easy to break them without even meaning to, just by confusing them.  A confused kid would rather look like a bad kid most of the time, and then the classroom management issues start. Or else the confused kids just check out and sit inert, putting up with the class period the same way they do anything else they can’t do anything about, and then they drop out of language the first minute they can.



“Untargeted input”: a nonstarter for Chinese

So, here’s the thing with targeting. You know, planning what you’re going to teach before the teaching happens. And having teaching happen, as opposed to just “saying that” and hoping it will stick by the end of the year.

Why do I always sound so negative about those “nontargeted” techniques? Surely many teachers are doing that successfully, if we are to believe what is posted (repeatedly)? Maybe they are. But they are not teaching Chinese. They are not teaching Japanese. They are teaching a language that has a phonetic alphabet and no literacy issues. I’m not even going to go into the issues of having sufficient professional freedom as a teacher to teach without lesson plans or a curriculum or mapping. Those are facts and are self-evident to those who are working under such restrictions.

But let’s think about Chinese for a minute. (Hey, you know what blog you’re on. What did you expect?)

Let’s say we introduce a Chinese word on the fly. Let’s assume the student can understand that word when it comes up in a story that is told to the student (as story-listening does) or just in casual conversation without specific direction (as these proponents of non-targeting are often doing). That’s great. Should be fine, right?

Okay, now let’s read.

For reading in Chinese (also in Japanese, to a great extent) you have two choices. You can push the necessary pattern recognition of characters/kanji using acquired language (the students must be able to come up with the phonetic forms of those words on their own, with no prompting, which is very, very much like what happens when a word is fully acquired, though not entirely so; but it is certainly not like what happens when the student has just heard the word a few times to understand it). Or you can force memorization, which makes a link between the character/kanji and the pronunciation and meaning.

Memorization is the method that has been used for many, many years to teach these languages. It isn’t very effective. We lose an enormous proportion of students to memorization of characters in Chinese. But unfortunately, without enough repetition of individual words before reading, there’s no way the student can come up with that sound form on his own while reading. He’s fine if he can — he can understand what the word means then — but he cannot simply by seeing that squiggle on the page. (It’s possible to read Chinese without being able to pronounce it, but that’s certainly not what we want to support overall acquisition for beginners.)

So failing to target — to use optimized input which is highly comprehensible, dense and repetitious — means that students MUST memorize as a path to reading.

I’ve taught reading both ways. I’ve experienced it both ways, too. I can tell you that I would never, never go back to a memorization-based literacy method either as a student or as a teacher. Most of the Mandarin teachers I know who use cold character reading (in which semi-acquired language pushes reading comprehension in the non-phonetic script) also say they prefer it to the old methods. But to do it, you MUST have that language semi-acquired — the students must have the “Chinese voice” that puts the sound of the unknown (visual) word into their head, quickly and often correctly. That’s what makes it work.

Cold Character Reading methods are incompatible with untargeted (non-optimized) input.

So if you teach Spanish, knock yourself out. Experiment. Let me know how it goes. But for Chinese — it’s a nonstarter.

Who does that, indeed?


On a TPRS teachers’ listserv, the comment was recently made:

I find it unfair to suggest that we should just make the story “like a movie in their minds” but oh, we get to stop the movie whenever we want and ask them what happens during the movie…Who does that?

Oh, I dunno…maybe someone who wants to be sure the students comprehend the language at the time it’s being spoken, the time when it can be acquired, instead of just waiting and hoping for the best?

…requiring cute answers in return for a grade. Who does that?

I don’t know who does that, but I know who would say that: someone who is so out of touch with what TPRS is and how it works that there is almost no place to begin setting him or her straight.

So just when did TPRS begin to “require cute answers for a grade”? [Spoiler: it never has.]

TPRS asks students questions to personalize or customize the input they receive in real time. There is no requirement that any answers received be cute. Never has been, never will be. Because it doesn’t matter.

And someone please expunge the image of Hello Kitty in a severe business suit with a huge pointer in her hand, threatening kids until they provide cute answers.



TPRS SKILL: Establishing Meaning

This is perhaps the most basic skill of the entire TPRS repertoire. Because if you do not establish meaning, the students cannot comprehend. If you don’t establish meaning, all the gestures in the world won’t make up for it. If you don’t establish meaning, it doesn’t matter how slowly you speak. They will not understand you. And if they do not understand things when they are said, they cannot acquire those things.

In TPRS, we establish meaning using a shared fluent language whenever one is available. There are situations where this is not possible: in an ESL class, for example, if the students come from 17 different countries and the teacher only speaks Spanish. Immersion is a similar situation. Both of these situations require using alternative means of establishing meaning, and the level of surety the teacher has that the students DO understand will be significantly lower than in the case where the shared fluent language is used.

We establish the meaning of new language by simply telling the students what it means. It’s just that easy. There is no guessing. In the higher levels, it might be okay to encourage some level of guessing for words that should be “guessable” based on students’ prior acquired language or the fact that it is a cognate. In Chinese, this is usually little more than a lovely dream. In Spanish, it might be more do-able.

We write the new language AND its meaning in the shared fluent language. We write it and leave it in view of the students while we are using that language (step 1 of TPRS being “establish meaning”, and step 2 of TPRS  “use the language”). Students are free to look at the meaning any time they want.

I train teachers to point to the meaning (that has already been established and written), not the target language phrase, when they are pausing and pointing during input. Why? Because if students are looking and need to see something, what they need to see is the meaning. If they just feel like looking at how the target language is spelled, for example, they can do that fine, but the student who is struggling to understand needs to have that meaning made obvious to him immediately, without having to slide across a long line of text to get to the meaning.

Meaning must be established at or before the time when the language is first used. Waiting until a sentence or, worse, a paragraph, is finished and then asking “So, what do you think XYZ meant?” is not a way to help students acquire language. That’s traditional thinking. Yes, it is what happens in natural acquisition, because no one is following a child around telling them precisely what every sentence they hear means. But neither is anyone limiting a child’s input time to 100 hours a school year, or demanding that the child do dozens of other complicated tasks at the same time they are acquiring their first language. School is a decidedly unoptimized environment from which to get a new language, so we have to optimize the input they do get.

The reason TPRS is successful is that meaning is clearly established up front, and then students can use the language as a tool to express meaning without having to worry about what that language means. Establishing meaning up front does not mean that the focus of the lesson is on the language itself. The focus of a TPRS lesson is always on meaning. Always. Establishing that meaning is the heart of being able to use the language to talk about things that are important to students and teacher.

So, in summary: meaning is established up front. Clearly. In the shared fluent language (usually English, in the US). Orally and in writing as well when students are literate. Orally only when students are pre-literate. For pre-literates, a symbol, gesture, etc. may be used to remind them of the meaning should they forget — but it should always refer back to that moment at which meaning was clearly stated, not be a standalone attempt to let kids figure out what a new piece of language means.

If you don’t establish meaning, you are not teaching with Comprehensible Input, you are teaching with potentially comprehensible input.

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