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.

Slow Down — it’s not just about how fast you talk

Dear New-ish TPRS Teacher:

So, you’ve done the workshop. You’re excited about the possibilities of using TPRS and Comprehensible Input in your classroom. And you’re right to be. You’re starting on the next phase of your teaching career, and you’re looking forward to seeing the results that have been demonstrated in the videos and the lectures and the books.

Maybe I was your presenter. Maybe I wasn’t. Either way, I want you to succeed with TPRS. I present to a lot of new TPRS teachers, and I hear or read about hundreds more. I want all of you to succeed with TPRS. And I want you to avoid the things that make people give up.

Which is why I’m telling you this: the number one skill you need to work on, right now, is going slow.

Not talking slowly. Not going through your curriculum more slowly. Those are both important changes to make, don’t get me wrong. But even more important is for YOU to go slowly.

You’ve just learned about a bunch of new skills. They’re not hard skills. But they are new things for you. This is the time to slow down and concentrate on those new skills, and to enjoy seeing how using those new skills produces positive changes in your classroom.

We all want to do the best for our students. As teachers, many times that means we are perpetually searching. We want to find a better activity, a better way of doing things. We want to provide more variety, more interest, more engagement. But sometimes striving for those things while the new paradigm-changing method you just trained in — TPRS — still has that “new car smell” to it, isn’t the best thing to do.

MovieTalk. PictureTalk. What sort of input should I be using? What about FVR? What kinds of readings do I need? Should we start a group to share readings we write? What about brain breaks? I should share what I learned with a group at my school so they can start doing this, too.

All of those things are good — eventually. But the majority of failures in TPRS happen because people don’t just slow down and focus on getting their feet under them with TPRS. Plain old “boring” vanilla TPRS Classic. They want to branch out and grab this shiny thing and that sparkly toy. And all those things are wonderful. They’re beautiful. But if you hang them on a Christmas tree that has a shaky stand, the whole thing will topple.

TPRS is that tree. It encompassses all the skills you need to do every truly CI-oriented way of teaching I have yet seen. This is because those “variations”, if we can call them that, came out of TPRS. There are very few people promoting truly CI-based ways of teaching who did not come out of the TPRS tradition, whether or not they say so publicly.

If you will just stick with the basics for half a year, make sure you are very, very solid on the skills you will need to do all kinds of cool CI stuff later, your students will thank you for it. Your mental health will thank you for it. Your family or spouse will probably thank you for it, too. TPRS is not hard, but it deserves a bit of time just to itself before you drop it and reach for the next thing, especially since that next thing is probably based on TPRS skills to begin with.

TPRS works. Just by itself. Plain, old, unexciting talking to your kids in a way they can understand makes them acquire language. No bells and whistles. No videos, props, classroom libraries that don’t align to your input, certain numbers of minutes doing this or that. Just talk to your kids and watch how they react. Give it six months before you try to expand your repertoire. No serious musician sight-reads a piano piece for a concert and then stops practicing it because they got new music that’s cooler. First make sure that concert is going to go smoothly, then order all the new music you want.

Slow. Down.

Naturalistic comprehensible input: does it work for Chinese?

On a language teachers’ list, the statement was recently made by a teacher interested in the debate about naturalistic CI versus optimized CI:

I have some plans to work with some Mandarin teachers to test this [naturalistic input] out.  They have not been trained in CI at all but they are eager learners.  I am going to test some ideas out on them.

Do you want those students to read, or do you want them to memorize glyphs and decode?

That is what is at stake here.

I truly don’t mean to sound condescending…but most people don’t know Chinese. And by that, I mean how it works. What is is like, as a non-native speaker, to acquire it and to become literate in it. People do these eight-hour mini-courses, and like ramen noodles with boiling water poured over them, feel they “get” the whole Chinese thing. Good luck with that, from the perspective of understanding how to teach it effectively — especially since most of these just-add-water courses conveniently dodge the reading-in-characters piece. “There’s just not time,” is the excuse. Just not time, or just not any method being used that allows it?

With Cold Character Reading, we have zero-Chinese beginners reading — fluently, in a relaxed manner, and understanding everything they read, and we have video and test results under proctored conditions to show this is the case — 130  characters after 21 hours of CI instruction. I don’t recommend this pace for most situations, but it shows what is possible. Six years of hard data prove this works, and that the reading skills transfer from the purpose-written texts used to teach reading through CCR to previously unseen, dissimilar texts.

People of my age did Chinese literacy the “hard way” — memorizing the characters and then combining them painfully. They still do, by and large, today, because that is the “conventional wisdom”. Chinese is a “hard language” that requires lots of “work” to learn to read and write.

Ask anyone who did it this way about how they feel about Chinese reading, about whether they read Chinese fluently for pleasure, about whether they feel good about reading something to another person, and you will get the eye-roll. And ask them how many of their Chinese 1 classmates made it out the other side to proficiency. If it is commonly said that only 4% of language learners make it to the upper levels, generally speaking it is far lower with Chinese, and tends to skew toward heritage learners as well.

Now. When you are talking about a language like Chinese (in this case languages with opaque scripts — ones where there is little or no phonetic component available) there is a divide between language and literacy. Given sufficient time, obviously a person could acquire Chinese through either optimized or naturalistic input. That is oral language. But the kicker is — how will that person become literate? Without optimization, there is no fluent reading in Chinese. There is no getting into “the zone” of reading until far, far, FAR later, if ever. Because most people drop the effort before they come close to that reading level, if they are not reading in a way that is driven by the Chinese Voice. And you don’t get the Chinese Voice quickly enough to be able to allow kids to read before the character repertoire is far, far separated from the speaking repertoire, unless you optimize the input.

So for people teaching a casual class or something where literacy is not an issue, if you have enough time and can keep people in class without feeling lost, if there’s no accountability and everyone’s happy with “whatever they get”, you could do naturalistic input with them. But the reading piece will fall down. People who have not seen reading in Chinese taught using anything other than memorization-and-decoding can’t believe there is another way to do it, but people who have seen it almost never go back — unless there are no materials available for their students to read — which is a consequence of naturalistic input (putting the load on the teacher to produce written materials). Again, that seems negligible in Spanish, but I can assure you that it is not, in Chinese. Especially since most Chinese teachers tend to have multiple preps (like, four or five in a mature program).

My hunch is that doing something like a one word image would be successful, only establishing the details of quantity, size, and color, and then writing it up with the class.  Like SUPER simple, very few new sounds, and loads of extralinguistic support.

Again, what is the goal? Do you want to take the students through the reading, and say “We got through that!” (given the need for “loads of extralinguistic support” when reading)? Or do you want them to be independent readers of acquired language? The exercise this teacher is describing will produce a text that is very, very difficult to use to teach Mandarin reading effectively. It’s essentially using the approach of a language where you only need to see a word once to be able to read it perfectly every time. Like Spanish. This is not the case in written Chinese.

A student who is able to read does not need “loads of extralinguistic support” to read a text. A student who gets enough optimized input, and reads texts that contain that language, does not have this problem.

If you read this way in Chinese for this lesson, and then you do another lesson in which the students presumably get more language, now you have twice as many characters that have been seen only a handful of times each. This is what the typical Chinese textbook does.

So you are once more leading students (almost dragging them — this is not a putdown, this is an actual description I have heard from reading teachers when the students did not have the foundation of oral language, the Chinese Voice, to drive the reading) through. They are not reading. They are playing the school game, just like we did back in the day, trying to count ahead and figure out when we would get called on so we could try to have the answer ready by looking it up and writing it in the margin of the text. They are surviving. Barely. Now add another lesson, and another. Soon you have kids throwing up their hands in despair because they are looking at 30, 50, 100 of these “squiggles” that they do not recognize immediately, because there has not been enough repetition, and there is not strong enough support from the Chinese Voice to make the link between the written form (which for beginners is frozen speech) to the meaning.

And there you have traditional Chinese teaching. They might speak a bit better, if they got CI input for oral Chinese. But they will not be literate in any meaningful way. And before this, Chinese teachers – even those who did use oral CI for acquisition — just shrugged and said, “Well, that’s how it is. Chinese reading and writing is hard.”

People don’t expect meaningful literacy out of beginning Chinese students. They never have. It’s about time they did. But to get that, you have to work with the nature of Chinese, not against it.


Is more support needed to read Chinese?

On a teachers’ email list, the comment was recently posted:
I definitely need more than the text to understand even simple Chinese stories.
Translation is ONE way of making tests more comprehensible. But I think we need to exploit other ways as well, including gestures, pictures, body movements, etc.

Or not. This is a basic misconception about the role reading can reasonably play in TPRS-level learners of Chinese, and it’s based on prevailing (and effective) practices used in the alphabetic languages.

Translation (in ANY TPRS context) is NOT used to make texts comprehensible. Translation is used in TPRS to make sure texts were comprehended. And if you need more than the text to understand the Chinese text as a TPRS-level learner, your teacher is not using Cold Character Reading techniques properly, or at all. At a minimum, that teacher is not realizing that there is a basic difference between TPRS as practiced for the FIGS (French, Italian, German, Spanish, etc.) and Chinese. In the FIGS, the Target Language Voice doesn’t have to be as strong going into the reading, because the phonetic information is there to make “the voice” for the student if needed. In Chinese, the Chinese Voice needs to push the creation of meaning from the text.

When a student has had optimized comprehensible input of a subset of language, and then is given a text containing that language (but which is NOT the same as the story asked in class — not even close) they can read that text. Because that language is in the Chinese Voice. And then the length of the text gives them enough repetitions that the eye becomes skilled at recognizing those characters. If you cannot comprehend a text after having oral input, there wasn’t enough or optimized-enough input.

If you are trying to acquire vocabulary from a text in Chinese, it’s a fool’s errand until you have already acquired the major structure of the language. And then it’s just a lot of work. It’s a better way to get vocabulary expansion than memorizing lists, because of the context, but it’s by no means the same process as occurs in phonetic script languages. You STILL must look it up or have someone tell you what it is. In a vanishingly small proportion of cases, as a fluent non-native speaker of Chinese, you might encounter a word and say “Hmmm, I do know a word that sounds like gang [or kang or hang, because those phonetics are not reliable] and has something to do with the sense of that radical there. Hey, I know that word!” I’m still waiting for that to happen to me, and I read Chinese daily and widely, and have done for the past 35 years.

Despite claims to the contrary, radicals and phonetics are NOT significantly useful to TPRS-level learners of Chinese as “clues” to text meaning. There is no phonetic information in a Chinese text in practical terms. The language MUST be in the head before it can be read. Any attempt to have learners “figure out” unknowns before they have acquired the structure of the language will make comprehensibility plummet to levels well below even the 85% considered okay for guided reading.

Students who have acquired the major structure of the language already can certainly acquire vocabulary from a text — but I can tell you from YEARS of doing this in Chinese that it occurs only when you stop and look up the unknown word. Otherwise, you only “get” a written form, which has no language attached to it. At least today’s students can do this more or less efficiently with electronic tools. In the old days, with paper dictionaries, a beginning student might have a 60-70% chance of even finding the unknown character in the dictionary in the first place. There was very little acquisition of the words behind unknown characters going on in that case.

It’s possible to read Chinese without speaking it particularly well (ask any number of academics) but it has little to do with acquisition.   I have words in my reading vocabulary that fit this description (the word “alkane” comes to mind — I’ve looked it up a gazillion times but can’t ever remember how it’s pronounced, but I can recognize it and its meaning immediately when I’m reading a chemistry text). But in terms of language acquisition, I have not acquired the word for “alkane” in Chinese, have I?

“Hours and hours”?

On another TPRS-focused list, someone recently posted:

Terry Waltz, a staunch proponent of what I would call Classical TPRS, has said many times that TPRS takes a lot of practice and has a large skill set to master, and therefore she asserts that new practitioners need hours and hours of training and coaching, to begin implementing it successfully. I am probably not quoting her exactly, but that is a message I have heard from her over the years.

Hmmm… Where to begin?

Since I have never had any conversation of the person making this assertion, it’s probably not too accurate to say that the person has heard this message from me over the years, except perhaps indirectly.

But let’s look at the content of the message instead.

Does TPRS have a large skill set to master? I suppose it does, if you start listing the individual skills. The trick here, which the person in question does not mention, is that those individual skills are all ridiculously easy, taken individually. We can all ask questions. We can all state a sentence. We can all ask “What did I just say?” Those are not things that are earthshakingly difficult. It’s more like juggling ping-pong balls. It takes awhile to get the knack, but it’s not like you’re trying to sling bowling balls around. You won’t have to bulk up. You just need a little practice.

Do new practitioners need “hours and hours” of training and coaching? That sounds a bit excessive, almost as if someone is trying to make a point (and it isn’t me). I think just about anything requires hours of training and coaching (note: not “hours and hours”, unless you want to go to Carnegie Hall). Remember also that I train and coach primarily languages for which there is NOTHING available, and for which untargeted input would lead to horrible issues with literacy training. Untargeted input, which may require fewer teacher skills to perform, is simply not an option in Chinese, if you are planning on teaching kids to read and write using anything approaching a brain-friendly method.

I am certain that workshops on non-targeted TPRS last more than an hour, so should we assume that those, too, require “hours and hours of training”?

Might “classical TPRS” take longer to get good at than “untargeted TPRS”? Maybe. I don’t know. Logically, if you don’t have to think about what you’re saying or how to repeat it, it could be easier to do. But that comes at the (again logical) cost to the students, the cost of a lack of repetition. You may be able to get away with that in Spanish. I don’t know — I haven’t taught Spanish for a few years now, and have no plans to go back to it. But I can tell you that it won’t work in Chinese at the TPRS levels.

Here in Australia, where I am at the moment, we have had many conversations about the nature of TPRS and CI in general and how the specific experiences of teachers working with Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian fit into that. Indonesian is not a “hard” language — it’s alphabetic and non-conjugational to boot — but there are no CI resources available for it at present. Japanese is a very complex script, though it is partly phonetic, and its structure is very distinct from English and the FIGS. Chinese is — Chinese. Tones, opaque script, very different structure from English. Our conclusion is that these languages require a practice very distinct from those adopted by those teaching the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish, and the like).

At this point, it might be most accurate to state that I practice what I could call COIN — Comprehensible Optimized Immersion through Narrative. And I would state right up front that the primary oral input in my practice is classical TPRStargeted, repetitive, 100% comprehensible input. I supplement the classical TPRS input techniques with techniques intended to deal with the specific features of the language I’m teaching that are not addressed with classical TPRS, and I use Cold Character Reading and Text-Referenced Writing (which themselves require enormous repetition within texts and a strong correspondence between oral input and readings so as to disallow untargeted input) for literacy.

I think “classical TPRS” is not to blame for being “difficult”. The skills are not difficult. What is needed is a long, hard look at how we are training people to get these skills. Training (not coaching) has not changed significantly for a long time. Things like the use of circling cards are my attempts to make training more user-friendly, in the hopes that it will become obvious that TPRS isn’t hard in the first place, and doesn’t require an enormous investment of time in training and coaching.

I value training and coaching. I think new teachers would do well to get as much of it as they can. It makes little sense to re-invent the wheel when there are people who have taught your language using this method for a longer time than you have, who can share experience and give you principles that will allow you to avoid making the same mistakes they did — mistakes they learned from and then used to tweak and perfect their methods.

One thing remains true, though: if you master the classical TPRS skills, you can go anywhere. You can do MovieTalk. You can do Story Listening. You can do untargeted TPRS. You can do any of a dozen other CI-based activities, even though the specific skills each technique require vary, because you have solid, unconscious questioning and comprehension checking skills in place. However, moving in the other direction, or laterally between any of the non-classical-TPRS options, is not possible without additional training is not viable.

So for my money, TPRS trained well is the best option for a beginning CI teacher, because it provides the most options going forward while addressing issues of engagement in the most effective way possible. And for the “Languages of Unusual Features”, I believe that the use of classical (targeted) TPRS with language-specific add-ons and a literacy plan aimed at the specific characteristics of that language is the way to go.

The piano played a wrong note

On a blog post, someone supporting the idea of untargeted “story listening” recently described a teacher’s performance delivering a targeted TPRS story (one for which the language to be emphasized was known before class started) thusly:

…my targeted stories are about as personalized as a Mad Lib activity.

Sounds to me kind of like someone blaming the piano if they haven’t reached the skill level to play the “Moonlight Sonata” without playing wrong notes.

TPRS requires skills. Skills require practice. I have yet to meet any teacher who could not master those skills if he or she wished to do so, and sought practice opportunities and training. But mastering classic TPRS and its core skills (circling and personalization) opens up the entire spectrum of CI teaching techniques. Including story telling, if that’s what you want to do. The reverse is, sadly, not true. Learning in a one-day workshop how to do some offshoot of TPRS that doesn’t include all its features does not equip you to be able to take up any of the many variations available today.

It’s always better to invest in good tools, rather than a one-use gadget.

Target language math

10 minutes of 60% comprehensible = 600 comprehension-units, and we don’t know if the meaning to language matches are correct or not.

9 minutes of 90% comprehensible = 810 comprehension-units, and we know all of them are correct.

That 1 minute of English is well used, not abused.

And for those who have doubts whether the use of English in TPRS is less than 10%, I have data proving that it is.

It’s baaaack

I’m afraid I do not see sufficient elemental differences between “story-listening” and anything else to consider story-listening an independent method. It’s TPRS 1.0 coming back, like the miniskirt, and has the same disadvantage: that all the varied bodies in question have to happen to fit the skirt for it to work, because like very early TPRS, its shape is unforgiving and imposed from outside. The TPRS of the late 1980s was not the personalized/customized method we see today, and there are very good reasons why TPRS has developed in the way it has, toward personalization, abandoning the attempt to impose stories on kids.

It confuses me that people who are great supporters of FVR — the key word being “free”, meaning choice and variation between student interests — would also espouse a one-size-fits-all selection of a story by the teacher. In Asian ESL (been there, taught that, BTW) this may go over better since conformity is much more valued, but in US public school teaching, I think in the majority of cases it’s very difficult to find a single story that would really compel the entire class. What teachers find compelling is rarely what all the kids find compelling.

Telling stories, rather than asking them, assumes the teacher can judge that a story (characters, details, ending) will be compelling to every student in the class. I can’t even imagine anyone being able to do that consistently throughout a school year, dealing with 30 or more students in a class. Having a class organically reveal what interests it avoids the pressure on the teacher to choose well, and also reveals a lot about the students. It’s also far easier to naturally repeat language that has been brought into comprehensibility, since everything grows as a whole, instead of being a series of stories that have no relationship to each other, stitched together (or not). Language acquisition in a school setting requires far more repetition than just what is available from natural frequency. TPRS provides high-density, high-quality comprehensible input, while most other “CI methods” provide mostly comprehensible input (depending on the willingness of the program to establish meaning through a shared fluent language) that is not particularly high-density.

It is also far more difficult to develop personal relationships with students when they are recipients of, rather than participants in, in a story. Asian classroom management is far simpler than that in the US (again, been there, taught that) but in the US public school system, most teachers find that building relationships with students is extremely important for classroom management if nothing else.

Telling a story occasionally is fine. But there’s no substitute for being able to ask stories reliably, in terms of flexibility, personalization and customization, for repetition of language, and in terms of compelling engagement for all, not just some.

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.

When voting isn’t enough

On a teacher’s group, a question recently came up (again) about listening rubrics. After one or two comments, this was the reply as to why it should be okay to use one that includes eye contact as a requirement to “meet standard” as listening in class:

As a class, students help to make and decide many things we do in class, including what they can do to show that they are listening actively, hence the rubric.

On the surface, this seems like a pretty solid argument, right? If the students themselves approved the rules, then we can assume that all the students are okay with them.

You would think.

But doing this with regard to an issue that has to do with groups of students (both identified and not) who communicate in a significantly different way then other people — that’s where the problems start.

I really hate to use the word “privilege”, as it is so overused these days, but I can’t think of another one that describes the problem underlying this decision. It’s privilege to assume that everyone shares your concept of how the world works, at least if you happen to be able to get away with it — which you can if you are in the majority or in a position of power. And both of those apply if you are a teacher in front of a classroom of students.

How was this decision to include eye contact made? Well, of course, by letting all the students in the class have their say. Do you think a student who doesn’t feel comfortable making eye contact while listening to others talking in class is likely to speak up and say so?

Think about what sorts of cultures do not value this. They are mostly cultures that also value conformity, that value not sticking out or perhaps not making others feel uncomfortable. And the other, very large and very under-recognized group that is very unlikely to speak up is the neurodivergent. There are far more people with autism and other neurological differences than are ever identified. These kids are having enough problem trying to navigate the teen years being different from their peers without doing anything that would make those peers focus on the differences. You can’t become an activist until you’re comfortable being identified as  member of the group you’re trying to help, or else able to show you’re not in the group, just being nice. Kids who are gay but haven’t come out yet don’t go to GSA meetings. And we have to add to this the fact that quite a few autistic teens have no idea that’s the root of their difference. They just assume they don’t fit  in. It’s not always  visible, because they learn to “pass” in many cases. This can be your valedictorian. It’s not just the kids in the special education program, not by a long shot.

Is that what we want, in a TPRS classroom? Do we want kids who have to “pass” for mainstream in order to “meet the standard”?

Go back to the 1950s for a moment. Those gay kids in class didn’t say they were. If there had been any kind of vote about, say, what kind of characters to include in a story, the gay perspective would have been totally ignored, because even though “everyone had input”, actually not everyone did. Some of the students had much less of a voice, but no one really cared at that time, because “that’s how it was”. It was normal. It was still okay to disregard those voices.

Multiculturalism is a great thing. It’s on the rise. But it’s important to realize that it’s not okay to stop thinking about those who are different just because the group you personally identify with or have a connection to is now being accommodated.

Neurodiversity makes people uncomfortable. Neurodiverse people talk, think, and react differently. They are the “not quite” who are excluded from the group because they don’t quite fit in.

It used to be “okay” to do that to other groups, too. The difference is that today you can most likely go talk to your black or gay or foreign teacher colleague, because there are likely black or gay and foreign teachers in your school. Now go talk to your autistic teacher colleague and get his perspective on what it was like to have to “pass” — and what it is still like.

Oh, right. There isn’t anyone to ask.

Powered by WordPress