How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?

How central to a method does an “element” have to be to be an element of that method?

On an internet group, I recently spotted a comment that went something like this (I can’t find it at the moment):

I like a lot of the elements of [hot new method]. So I do [hot new method] but I just change a few things. Like, they don’t translate to establish meaning, but I do. And they force output, which I don’t. But I take a lot of elements from that method.

It’s nice to get along with colleagues. There’s no reason for us to go around screaming “You are teaching all wrong!” to anyone. I think we all agree on that.

But there comes a time when one has to draw a line and be clear about what something is or is not. What “elements” precisely is this teacher taking from Hot New Method? Are those elements not present in any other method, such as, for example, TPRS? I think they are.

It’s sort of like applying for a patent. Patent language usually goes something like “A method of doing XYZ in which A is used to…” There are many, many different ways of achieving XYZ. The thing that makes the patent (and allowing it to be granted a patent in the first place) is that the effect is achieved in a particular way, using a very specific method, which is different from all other methods of doing that thing.

In the case of TPRS versus “story listening” (which, I’m sorry, is just a throwback to the beginning of TPRS, before it developed to take content from students; it’s not something new other than the spiffy new title), for example, both are aiming to “engage students”. In the case of TPRS, the part of the patent that concerns engagement would read something like “A method of engaging students  using content obtained from students as a hook to capture their attention through personalization or customization.” In the case of story listening, it would be “A method of engaging students by providing a story the teacher believes they will all be interested in.”

And that’s exactly where TPRS was, “back in the day”. The content didn’t come from the students; it was a story that was repeated. And then, little by little, the idea of “milking” came about (yeah, at least I’m not the only one who can’t pick good names for new techniques!) That was later amended to be called “parking”, but anyway, it meant asking detail questions of the students about a single statement so that repetition could happen as the addition of details would keep them interested, although the story was still largely imposed on them. This developed over time into today’s technique where, if a script is used (the most restrictive implementation of TPRS in terms of student input), the only thing imposed is the basic skeleton, not the characters and details, and the students are contributing and customizing their story beyond simply deciding what color the cat-that-was-darn-well-going-to-be-in-the-story-anyway was.

This technique is truly an element of TPRS. I am not aware of any other language teaching method that trains teachers specifically to elicit information from students for inclusion in the language lesson in this way, as a means to interest them. “Engagement” is not an element of TPRS, since just about every language teaching method attempts to engage, with a greater or lesser measure of success. Even the pretty illustrations in traditional textbooks are an attempt to engage students.

So if we’re talking about adopting [Hot New Method], but we just change a few things, the question is whether or not we are keeping the true Elements of [Hot New Method]. If we replace something with an Element of another method, does that essentially mean we are using [Hot New Method], or are we really using that Other Method with a thin veneer of non-unique elements from [Hot New Method]?

And why does this matter?

It matters because the language teaching field is exploding right now. Teachers are getting more and more information more and more easily than ever before, and there are bazillions of suggestions, activities, pieces of advice, videos, and “do this” things out there. They’re bombarded. And if a teacher is new to the area of theory, or new to thinking about practice deeply, very often that teacher can’t distinguish between this and that, and ends up with a mishmash of practice that doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work is very simple: language is acquired through comprehensible input. Anything that deviates from comprehensible input in the classroom must either be Necessary  (due to the suggestion or order of a Higher Authority, or some circumstance that cannot be changed) or addressing an area for which the use of Comprehensible Input is not appropriate (culture for novices, etc.)

Pushed output is not compatible with efficient language acquisition through Comprehensible Input.

Failing to clearly establish meaning is not compatible with efficient language acquisition through Comprehensible Input.

If we “just change” these two “little” elements of a method, is the result is still that method? I would say no. If a method says it uses pushed output and does not establish meaning clearly, and we use that method but we don’t push output and we do establish meaning, is that the method we’re using? It’s the same as the people on the recipe sites that leave reviews: “This was a great recipe. I made it with pork, instead of chicken, and I substituted two cans of crushed tomatoes for the water, and I doubled the spices and cooked it in a slow cooker instead of on the stove.” The difference is that apart from taste, food is still nutritious — but input isn’t comprehensible if all the conditions for making it so aren’t met.

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