Balance poles: only for “impure” wire walkers?

Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, walks across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. New York, Aug. 7, 1974. (AP Photo/Alan Welner)

I would normally not quote a person’s writing so extensively, but since my responses (two, on two different days) to Mr. Slavic’s post on Facebook were summarily deleted, this is the material I was responding to — this morning. (Apparently all my posts are summarily deleted. I don’t know. Seems like it.)

Interestingly a colleague just heard back from Krashen that the argument that we have a limited number of hours so therefore we must “hammer” or “target” language is “an old argument and a bad one”. He said that if he only had ONE hour to teach, he wouldn’t worry about targeting (unless there is a good reason to do targeting 2).

With all due respect to a great theoretician, please do let me know when Dr. Krashen has, or has had, any number of hours to teach language in a real public K-12 school in a position of accountability.

If one only has one hour to teach, one is doing a demo. There is no accountability whatsoever with a demo. One makes the students enjoy themselves and like the language. That’s it. That’s why giving workshops is so much easier than actually teaching. Public school jobs require attention to a whole host of boring things like those mentioned below…

He said that people who make these statements are worrying about goals and syllabi set by traditionalists, from textbooks.

People who make these statements are worrying about something, yes. They are worrying about teachers keeping their jobs. When a public school teacher signs a contract he or she is committing to impart the curriculum. The curriculum may or may not be set by that teacher (and generally is not), but that teacher is required to show adequate progress along that curriculum. As well as worry about other mundane matters like the limited number of available hours for input, student attendance or lack thereof, poverty and its effects, entrenched legacy teaching ideas, well-meaning admins who know little or nothing about language or how it is acquired, requirements to use textbooks for which taxpayer monies have been spent “no matter what”, the Danielson Rubric — one could go on and on.

After 100 hours students will be ready to understand a lot of authentic input and can continue to acquire on their own.

Yes, on this point we certainly agree. Although in the case of Chinese, I would put this closer to 200+ hours, because we don’t have that cushy 40% cognates to fall back on, and kids can’t even sound out words they know orally by looking at them. The Great Wall has nothing on the Chinese writing system taught through conventional memorize-and-decode means. But you give me a kid for two years of TPRS Chinese, using dense comprehensible input on high-frequency targets, and I can both have that kid ready to be an independent learner of Chinese and keep my sanity and my job at the same time. The kid might be at the same level through free-range input (though I doubt it, given that he would lack the very extensive reading we provide using targeted “purpose-written” texts, and his literacy level would be unlikely to match that of student taught through targeting and extensive reading of comprehensible tests. Remember that in Chinese “comprehensible texts” has a far narrower window than in Spanish or French.)

And that whole “just write out the class story” thing from free-form input sounds fine, unless you happen to have five preps. Which is not at all uncommon among Chinese teachers, who can often be the only teacher of Chinese in the district. Not to mention, again, that when you write out the story you have maybe 100 or 200 words. Not the 400 to 700 I typically give in targeted readings that are already made.

Teaching Spanish with TPRS is like performing tricks on a balance beam. It’s not easy, and it takes some practice, but the results are stunning. But teaching Chinese with TPRS is more like performing on the high wire. There’s no safety net of cognates and phonetic script under there. Criticizing a teacher for using a script, a list of items, prewritten readings, the interesting novels available in many languages these days, or any other aid to help them keep their language comprehensible while keeping their jobs is about as logical as going after a highwire performer for using a balance pole. It’s just common sense, especially given how many teachers are jumping into TPRS/CI these days. They have enough on their plates already without having to re-invent the wheel.

I also know that some people find it useful to say that Krashen is “just another PhD” or “just one researcher” but to me, he is the foundation of our whole field, having developed the theory that comprehension-based teaching is built upon, including the Input Hypothesis.

I don’t know if it’s “useful”, but I do know the phrase that is so commonly used in law commercials. It goes something like this: “Past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes.”  One can believe the idea that language is acquired through comprehensible input without necessarily then accepting every idea the person who first put that idea forth says, ever. Not accepting someone’s ideas is not disrespectful to that person. Not listening to the evidence or reasoning behind those idea, IMO, is.

But equally, not engaging in a professional debate about those ideas — based on facts, not emotions — is disrespectful to one’s profession. If one wishes to be on a soapbox, social media isn’t the tidiest place to try that, what with the whole public response thing and all. That might better be confined to one’s blog or one’s PLC or wherever, where one can reasonably expect no dissenting voices or be forgiven the impulse to delete those who Disagree.

Until Blaine Ray came up with TPRS (and many other teachers worked over the years to systematize and refine and expand it), Krashen’s theories were mostly just that: theory. Ask anyone how often the Natural Approach was actually used nationwide, particularly in K-12 schools. Theories guide practice, but they do not dictate it. Theories have to be operationalized. If they aren’t, they are simply something in a textbook, interesting to a small minority of people who like to think of the how and why, but not useful in the real world.

And by the “real world”, I mean the actual, messy, impure world of teaching today, where “pure” input doesn’t fly because of limitations on time, limitations on practice, limitations on curriculum, limitations on almost everything except demands on teachers.

I have no issue whatsoever with any teacher who happens to enjoy a work environment in which it is possible to use “free-range” CI. If that’s what you want to do, if that gives you the results you want, and if you don’t mind all the writing work, go for it. But teachers — and particularly teachers with a social-media megaphone — need to be mindful that not nearly all teachers are in that enviable position, for starters. And they need to stop imposing (or attempting to impose) the view that only “free-range” input is pure, effective, or real. Because that’s simply not true. And in my opinion it is professionally irresponsible to say so.

I’m going to say this in the smallest words I can manage here. There is nothing that proves that targeting is bad. There is nothing that proves that not targeting is bad. There is nothing that proves targeting is demotivating. There is nothing that proves novels are bad. There is nothing that proves that targeting or not is better — and there can’t be, because there is no way to design an effective study that pits those two against each other.

There is, however, considerable evidence to strongly suggest that comprehensible input drives language acquisition.

But don’t take my word for it. I’m just another Ph.D. And believe me, there is absolutely nothing magical about that.


Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Powered by WordPress