But TPRS is so unstructured!

On a discussion board talking about learning Chinese, the comment was recently posted:

It was only after I’d been learning Chinese for a while and had acquired most of the grammar structures that I felt comfortable learning Chinese in a non-structured way.

This statement seems logical on the surface. After all, you have to “learn” the language first, before you can benefit from those loose, random interactions in the environment, right?

The problem in this quote for me lies in the fact that the English language has lots of words that mean more than one thing. In this case, it’s the unfortunate double life of the word “structure” that is misleading.

Many people think the Comprehensible Input-based instruction has no structure. Especially if you are a teacher who tends more toward the one-word or word picture style of TPRS®, going into class with a single structure and then seeing where things go through interaction with the students, often it seems to outsiders (or even to students) like things are happening at random.

I’ve seen this in training new TPRS teachers as well. One of the hardest things for me to communicate to new Chinese teachers (who cannot reach for a packaged, ready-to-use TPRS-based textbook and ancillaries system) is how to organize curriculum into pieces you can actually use in the classroom. Never mind that the curricula these teachers are given are usually not CI-friendly (too many words and items, thematically arranged, etc.); it’s simply difficult for them to break it down and see the linguistic values within it.

When we teach using TPRS, we are actually being very structured. We have to maintain a computer-like grasp on what words and structures (grammatical structures, I mean) have been presented and which of these have been acquired. Sometimes it is easier to actually use a computer to track these things! But any course that has accountability has to have structure, if the goals are to be met prior to the assessment. TPRS-taught courses are certainly no exception.

So why would people get the idea there is no structure? Simply because — as in so many things — TPRS structure doesn’t look like rules-and-output structure. The structure of Rules-And-Output teaching is easy to see. We’re doing the past tense of AR verbs. We’re doing the hospital unit. Whatever.

In TPRS, we generally do not emphasize thematic units, and while we certainly handle the past tense of -AR verbs, we don’t announce it to the world by opening to page 10 and looking at the chart of endings, or by putting an overhead up on which the endings dance over to the verb stems in the hope that “technology” will somehow make the grammar “sink in”.

So what does non-structured language learning look like?

Like a podcast. Like a random encounter at the local store. Like most language exchanges. What do these all have in common? No accountability. No assessment to inform instruction. And, generally, a low level of continuing investment by the student. People quit language exchanges all the time. They might cite other reasons, but I suspect that one very broad and pervasive one is the niggling feeling that they just aren’t “getting what they need” to improve significantly.

Students who are at a level that will benefit from TPRS (that is, students who have not yet acquired the whole structure [grammar] of the language) benefit from structured (principled, planned) instruction — based on comprehensible input. CI can’t be random if we are going to make it work in 108 hours a year! Students that are at a level more advanced than that — who already control all the structures of the language unconsciously — can benefit more from unstructured experiences. In layman’s terms, we say “they can pick things up”.

To pick things up requires a place to put them down. And the fastest way I know of to get that is pure CI instruction organized in a principled manner. It’s not organized rules-and-output instruction, and it’s not unorganized input. “In the wild” unstructured CI works every day — otherwise no one would speak his native language. But “in captivity”, in a time-limited class, we need structure.

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