“Oh, I do TPRS®, I just add some extra words.”

Lots of people out there these days saying they “do” TPRS®.

What has to be happening to make a statement like that true?

Teachers who teach using TPRS® are using Comprehensible Input. There are other ways to teach using Comprehensible Input. TPRS® is just one of them. The main hallmark of TPRS® is the insistence that the language presented to students as input to be acquired should be 100% (absolutely, totally) comprehensible to them at all times. Whenever there is a convenient shared language, that shared language is used to establish meaning, because using a shared language to transmit meaning is far more efficient than using pictures, props, guessing games, mime, gestures, or anything else.

The second hallmark of TPRS® is how the language is made comprehensible. “Establishing meaning” means ensuring that the student absolutely understands every word that comes out of the teacher’s mouth or which is presented in writing. This means limiting vocabulary. Not using words that are not absolutely, positively acquired or right there in front of the students’ eyes with their meanings. Getting used to this limitation, for many teachers, is harder than a new diabetic giving up chocolate, cake and pies. It’s harder than tearing Homer Simpson from an all-you-can-eat shrimp bar. Teachers are conditioned to think that more is more, or broader is better. The more we cover, the “better” the class must be. If the kids don’t acquire that language, well, clearly they are not studying enough. No pain no gain, right? If a popular textbook like “Intimidating Chinese” or “Buen Viaje [al Infierno]” has 40 vocabulary words per unit, that must be the true correct number of new words for that period of time!

Except that language isn’t supposed to be a pain for gain proposition. It’s a natural function that all organically normal humans possess. All humans have the capacity to acquire new languages, as many as they like, as long as nothing prevents them from doing that. Like, for example, being made to memorize a whole bunch of vocabulary words and then “practice” them, instead of focusing on acquiring the structure of the language over a smaller set of vocabulary, focusing on becoming fluent.

The refusal to limit vocabulary is a huge contributing factor to the widespread lack of fluency that we see even among the “top achievers” in rules-and-output language classes. (The refusal to link grammar to meaning and the insistence on force-feeding more and more tenses and forms through rules teaching in a school year is another.) It is also a huge contributing factor to the “failure” of TPRS® in the hands of new teachers (and some experienced ones, who have just never grasped the core principles of TPRS®: repetition, comprehensibility and limiting vocabulary).

I believe that TPRS® has reached the point where some sort of certifying body is almost becoming a necessity. TPRS® is a registered trademark, owned by the teacher who initiated the method. Many people have contributed hugely to its development since then, but there is a strong consensus about what TPRS® is and is not, what its underlying principles are, and there are more and more cases these days where people are claiming use of TPRS® when they are not, in fact, doing TPRS®. It is practically impossible, of course, for an individual to roam the world making sure that people who say they’re using TPRS® really are. Those who are trying to do it, trying to follow the basic principles and improve their skills, are not the problem. Those teachers will gradually improve, if they keep at it and seek out help and guidance through the Internet or by attending workshops with reputable presenters in the TPRS® world.

The issue is the teachers who might even truly believe they are doing TPRS®. They know TPRS® works, so “obviously” it will work even better when they just ignore this one teeny-tiny principle and add more words. The problem is that the whole structure then comes tumbling down: ALL students cannot achieve fluency, the bell curve comes roaring back into town, retention rates plummet, and the focus moves from getting the structure of the language into the brain to having kids memorize words and plug them into sentence patterns…which is what TPRS® isn’t, and shouldn’t be.

So no — in my opinion, if you’re “doing TPRS®”, but also:

a) just adding those 20 extra words;

b) not using English to establish meaning where possible;

c) doing rules-and-output or grammar-centric teaching a few days a week;

d) not keeping reading materials, as well as oral input, 100% comprehensible

then you’re not really “doing TPRS®”. And it’s time to get your own registered trademark for whatever it is you ARE doing.

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