Shooting down the grammar geeks

On a teachers’ site, this question recently surfaced:

Ok suppose a kid said, “Mr/Ms Smith, I want more grammar teaching/practice” and you’re like, “no way, there but for the grace of Blaine go I.” You know C.I. works but you need a fast, simple demo to show that grammar (or really any explicit teaching of language) doesn’t work. How do you do that?

The fastest way to show that memorized rules application breaks fluency is a way I stole from Susie Gross, who used it in workshops.

Just find a native speaker of English, like, for example, the kid who’s asking for more grammar work, and say, “Can you tell me what you did yesterday? Just three sentences.” Let them say the three sentences. Then tell them, “Hmmm…you’re pretty fluent in English, aren’t you? I wonder if you could tell me what you’re going to do tomorrow — but don’t use any words that contain the letter ‘r'”.

Immediately the eyes will go up as the student applies this new rule, and the fluency will break as output becomes hesitant.

“You’re applying one memorized rule to a language you already know very well. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be to apply five or six memorized rules at the same time to a language you aren’t fluent in?” Then offer a good book in place of grammar exercises.


Tough love about the smart kids

A comment recently came up on a teachers’ group:

I have 2 groups with only high profile students, ages 8 to 12. I notice that their minds work very differently from the average student. I also notice that hardly any of the TPRS / CI activities that I do with them, works. On the contrary, they become even more difficult to handle. I am beginning to think that TPRS simply is not suitable for these special kids. Any thoughts?

This is a very, very, very common misconception among language teachers, and usually among those who are reasonably new to TPRS (less than 5 years, as a ballpark figure).

The minds of all people — every single person on the planet who has normal hearing and cognitive function — work precisely the same in terms of language acquisition. The mechanism is identical: incoming sounds are linked to meaning, over and over, until acquisition occurs. The brain hears meaningful messages and is able to “sort out” the grammar underlying them by comparing thousands of meaningful messages. Everyone in the world acquires language through the same mechanism, whether it’s their first, their fifth, or their fifteenth language.

Now. This teacher is asking about “high-profile” students, by which I believe he or she means “gifted” or “high achieving” students. At a minimum, this is talking about “fast processors” — the kids who seem to “get it” easily, and who can often succeed reasonably well in a traditional language class.

We know that students who are high achieving in school are often accustomed to earning grades through brute force. More hard work, more memorization = success in their minds. When they are given a method like TPRS that does not require these things, and works for everyone, it’s — surprising to them. At best. For some, it’s a bucket of cold water, because they are no longer special and more able than everyone else.

But what if the entire group is made up of students like that?

The key is that TPRS is not aimed at a barometer student who is not in the room. It is always aimed at the students who ARE there. So if the students are becoming restless or bored, it is very, very likely that there is some amount of boring input going on. There are a couple of reasons this could be. The teacher could be circling language they have already acquired. The teacher could be circling in too monotonous a manner (not  random, not including interesting “shadows”, not getting content from the students). These things are all very frequently seen in new TPRS teachers, who have learned how to circle but don’t yet have the level of automatic, flexible circling skill that allows them to concentrate on the meaning of what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.

Students who are fast processors require more “entertainment” — by which I mean more personalization or customization. Storytelling (as opposed to story-asking) in particular will fall flat, flat, flat with this sort of group. For them, the customization could also consist of including words that we do not expect them to acquire (but they often do) — lower frequency but “cool” words that hook their attention. They still need lots of repetition to acquire the structure of the language, but since they can be easily bored, the repetition has to be dressed in really interesting stuff. The number of repetitions they require may well be lower than those required by “slower” students, but they absolutely do still require repetition.

So the tough answer, the answer no one wants to hear, but the one I really believe is the crux of the issue is: Yes, TPRS is suitable for these kids. It’s the technique of the teacher which may not be suitable (matched) to their needs. Teach to their eyes while doing TPRS, and make sure the TPRS is at their pace, filled with interesting content and “cool” words, and above all, that the content comes from them.

When kids fail to acquire through being given 100% comprehensible input, we have to examine our own practice, not their brains. If they are listening to CI, they will acquire. They just need a reason to do so.

Smiling ruthlessness

On a teachers’ group, the question was recently posted:

How can I transition my Spanish 2 class from listening to me speak in Spanish, but almost always responding/suggesting/asking in English to the students speaking in Spanish as well?

Two words: classroom management. I know, not the answer people want to hear. Teachers would prefer to have a magic activity, or a couple of worksheets that would “catch them up”.

But what behavior of any kind is allowed in class comes from classroom management. What language is allowed in the classroom is a matter of classroom management. If you post and ruthlessly enforce the “2 Words of English” rule (students may use no more than 2 words of English to answer or make a suggestion), there really isn’t much chance that they will output English beyond that. It is more than possible to be ruthless with a rule without alienating your students. You just make sure to be ruthless with a smile.

But doesn’t that shut students down?

Yes and no. First, it depends on the attitude and tone of the teacher. But even more, it depends on the teacher accepting short target-language answers and then modeling how to make a longer one. Just as we use “three-fers” in circling to provide models of longer, more complex language while students are at a place that only allows shorter output, modeling provides extra input and also shows them how they can use language they already have — because the teacher is staying in bounds while doing this — to express complex meanings.

When a teacher accepts a short answer in the target language, he is modeling real-world communication. No one answers in complete sentences, and the more mundane the question, the less likely it is the answer will be in a complete sentence. Listen to question and answer pairs in your native language for a day if you don’t believe this. Now, of course we want more than what might be described as a “husbandly grunt” (you have heard this, ladies!) in response to answers in class, but that doesn’t mean we want to err on the side of forcing complete sentences for output before that is going to happen naturally, and it doesn’t mean that we reject answers that perfectly well convey meaning but are not complete sentences. Considering the way real people use real language, that would be bordering on the hypocritical.

So there is an element of the “fishing” skill here (“fishing” being the TPRS skill of asking for answers to an open-ended question and rejecting some of them). When we “fish”, we always honor the student’s answer, even if we know the second we hear it there is no way we would ever use that suggestion in class. (Inappropriate answers are an exception, of course — I am always talking about TPRS within the frame of appropriate classroom management, since ANY method of instruction has to fit inside that limit, and without that limit, it is difficult to effectively use any method of instruction.) It’s the same way with short answers.

When a student knows that the teacher is first and foremost focused on his meaning, rather than the form of what he’s saying, that’s when the magic happens. That’s why it’s called comprehensible input. Comprehensible means able to be understood, but what is being understood? MEANING. Meaning is central to TPRS. If we drift from meaning and start worrying too much about form in our interactions with students, we kill the relationships. As teachers we still do “worry” about form, but we do something about that by providing more rich input — “rich” meaning rich in the longer, more complex forms that students have not yet acquired, as evidenced by their inability to output them.

We have to fill the bucket of language before it can slop over the top. Long answers are no different. Patience and input equal proficiency.

Input by the numbers

On a teachers’ discussion group, the question recently came up:

Any suggestions for teaching numbers up to 100? I know they can naturally come up in stories…but I feel like it doesn’t happen often enough and doesn’t regularly cover every “ten.” Or should I just do more of it?!

The post garnered a number of very reasonable, very nice answers. Sing a numbers song. Use a listen-and-draw where kids have to draw a certain number of things. All very nice, fairly traditional activities. So they must be “proven” things to do that really work, right?

Um…who knows?

Seriously, who knows? Because who is going to test the ability of a kid to pop out the correct number without counting up or down, or singing a song in his head, after doing these exercises? That’s right, nobody. Because I don’t think anyone really believes that the kids — ALL the kids, which is our goal, remember — can do that after doing these exercises. And that’s what acquisition isbeing able to unconsciously and correctly use language. Not “manage to remember it”, even using a snazzy mnemonic like a catchy song.

Acquiring language takes time. Acquiring language takes repetition. And so far, the best  classroom way we’ve found to provide the repetition it takes is through repetition in unpredictable contexts that are meaningful. A song is catchy, and it’s useful for recall, but not as useful for acquisition, because that’s not how the brain acquires language. It’s like repeating the same thing over and over. It helps, but… Sure, we can take bits and pieces we’ve retained from song lyrics and substitute them into language we have in our heads — given the time to do so. It’s easier to do that with a single word from a song where it’s “obvious” where that word is and what it means, than it is to do it by finally running up to the right number and isolating that to use. Try it yourself. Let’s say you’re trying to remember the word “love” in English and your teacher had you listen to the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”. Will it be easier to find that word in that song, or find the word 14 in a counting song?

So, sure. Play the songs. There’s no harm. They will get something from it, and it’s possible that the “external forces” will check some of their checkboxes, too. But do not expect that kids will acquire numbers from the song, any more than they would from using rules. I can painfully construct the French numbers 1-100 but there’s a lot of that looking-up-while-remembering stuff going on. In Chinese, on the other hand, I can pop out any number I want without thinking. Acquired versus not-yet-acquired-and-still-relying-on-rules.

Another piece of conventional wisdom is to have kids do math problems. But doing math in a not-your-strongest-language is just not natural. The only time that usually happens is people who grow up speaking a minority language and then are educated in a majority one. They will probably never had even talked about multiplication in the home language, if everyone was educated in the majority language. But asking kids to do math in the second language “as a way to learn the numbers” is output, and it’s translation. Kind of like the way the STEM teachers had no idea that the kids, doing an abacus competition, would do the math in English then just run to set the beads in the right positions to show the answer on the abacus. Just as we need to respect the ways by which the brain acquires language, we also need to understand the unspoken norms that govern the use of language. This is the same sort of reason why it’s unreasonable to expect two novices to speak the target language together for any extended period of time or about anything other than specifically stuff they know — people always default to the strongest shared language, because in real life, meaning is king.

I’m not  criticizing teachers for suggesting songs and exercises. I’ve done plenty of them in my life. What I am saying is that let’s not forget what really drive acquisitioncomprehensible inputand what drives it fastest in the classroom in my experience — presenting comprehensible input that’s interesting and unpredictable, and doing it in a dense manner, i.e., with repetition. Also known as “targeting”. Which means that we need to consider what we’re doing, how much  class time it takes, and what result it will give, and balance those things given our particular classroom situation.

Does it require planning? Sure it does. You have to consciously put numbers into stories. You have to consciously do “product placement” to get those sets of words (clothing, months, days of the week, emotions, holidays, foods, etc.) into stories. But it is not rocket science. It’s just taking a list and checking it more than twice — keeping track of what’s been done and what hasn’t. There are all sorts of software solutions that will help with that. Some teachers are gifted to be able to remember exactly what language their kids have had or haven’t had — many others are not. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do something that works, just because it requires a little planning.

So the teacher who posted that question already had it right, IMO. Often we think we are not teaching “creatively” if we are “only” providing CI in the form of compelling stories or conversation. We see all the “other teachers” with stuff stuck on the walls, worksheets, songs blaring out of the classroom. Those can all be good things, as long as we don’t forget that the main driver of acquisition for spoken language is rich comprehensible spoken language. No song, activity or worksheet can equal it. So while “other” activities might make the teacher feel better, the question would be: how is this making the kids feel in terms of their language progress, not just ‘having fun’?

Many times, going to “other activities” is done in an effort to convince kids they are actually learning something. I don’t know of any other school subject that does that. The gym teacher doesn’t provide “other activities” to keep me convinced I’m getting better at basketball when what I need is more practice. Why should language teachers feel compelled to do so, when what is really needed is more optimized classroom-friendly input?

Paralysis by analysis

On a social media group for teachers, the following question (actually pretty far removed from the title of this post!) was recently posted:

Could you share resources that you’ve used to infuse your TPRS lessons with cultural perspectives?

As I waited for my server to let me into my own blog — some sort of crazy wintertime slowdown or something — I started thinking about how we are inconsistent in the TPRS world. Again, not about this question specifically — it just made me think about it.

We are firm in our belief that we do not want to analyze grammar in class. We don’t want to separate grammar or structure out and “deal with it” separately from the language it’s in and the meaning it represents. Given what we know about how language is acquired, that seems like a Good Thing.

But then we accept other ideas that are purely and squarely in the realm of analysis. Like, how Culture is to be taught as something separate that has to be “incorporated” into content. Like (if we’re going to be honest here) how there are sufficient differences in language between presentational, interpersonal and interpretive as to merit separate consideration of each, tracking how much time or effort goes into each, and separate assessment of each.

And I think lots of times, we become paralyzed because we are so worried about fulfilling all the requirements of these artificial categories — so concerned about checking all the boxes — that we forget that language doesn’t live in a box.

It’s all language, folks. Language doesn’t care if you’re putting it on a billboard or whispering it into someone’s ear. It’s just language. (Okay, I’m assuming a fairly “ordinary” language, not one with a high and low form, or oral Chinese versus newspaper grammar, and that kind of thing. But we don’t usually deal with that so much at the K-12 levels anyway.)

So — back to culture. First of all, what IS culture? I think culture is what any particular group of people tends to believe is normal. The “right” way to do things, to think, to react.

It’s easy to do a unit on Day of the Dead, or Chinese New Year, or whatever. It’s not so easy to do a unit on “how Spanish people think about other countries”.

Fortunately, TPRS comes with micro-everything. We micro-differentiate, we micro-lecture about structure (pop-ups), we progress in micro-steps because we know the brain craves repetition until it feels confident about things. Culture — in the “how people think” — sense fits beautifully into the micro-model of TPRS teaching.

Every sentence is an opportunity to teach culture. Even if you are asking a story and your kids have decided that Bob the purple and red hedgehog is living on Mars and running a taco stand, Bob will encounter things and Bob will react to them, and then we pull out the time-honored TPRS tool of “compare and contrast” and we can compare Bob and whatever hedgehog culture he comes from to actual cultures in our target language (for it’s unusual for there to be only one, unitary culture anyway). What would a Spanish man say if he were in Bob’s tiny little hedgehog shoes? What would a Chinese customer say if he ordered a taco from Bob’s stand and Bob treated him the way Bob treats people, says the things Bob says?

Everything that is said in a story is normal for someone in that story. That’s why stories have been great teaching tools for centuries. Teaching  culture only involves pointing out (through pop-ups) the normal and all the alternative normals we want to include.

The need to ask

On a social media site, a general question more or less like this has been flying around of late:

Why can’t we just look at our students and gauge them that way? Why do they need to actually respond? I can already tell if they are listening and interested.

The answer goes back to the root of what we are trying to provide to our students: comprehensible input.

If the students are listening and interested, we can assume they are getting input (as long as they are not “putting on the school face” and actually thinking about lunch, or the fact that Suzie put her math book into José’s locker yesterday so maybe she likes him and not me, or…). Input is good. Input is half of what we need.

But the other half is the “comprehensible” piece.

Comprehensible means “able to be understood“. Really it might be clearer to explain to language teachers that we want to provide comprehended input. We don’t want to put some potentially understandable language out there — meaning is not where i+1 lives — we want to provide messages students can understand.

The question is, how do we ensure that we are doing that? It is such a crucial element of our practice that it really cannot wait for a summative assessment. It can’t even wait for the end of a class period, because if a kid hasn’t been “getting it”, that is a period wasted for that student’s input, not to mention the message the kid is getting (“I will let you flounder in confusion”). We do not want our language babies to flounder in confusion. They have plenty of time later to use the tools they are getting now, in their linguistic cradle, to deal with ambiguity and talk to unsympathetic speakers and all that. Now is their happy time of rapid growth through 100% comprehensible input.

So once more, how can we tell that input is comprehended by them?

We ask.

Without asking what was understood, without having them tell us what they made that meaning out to be, we — and they — are only guessing. Guessing is fine when you have virtually unlimited time (as in natural acquisition in children). Guessing is much less fine when you have 100 hours a school year or even less.

Judging comprehension by gauging the level of attention on a student’s face is like saying we will tell if the car is going to run out of gas by looking at the oil gauge. They are two unrelated things. A person can look perfectly attentive and even calm, but not have a clue about what’s going on. Not all miscomprehensions will be so broad and deep, of course, but the principle still holds: without having the student give us a precise snapshot of what’s inside his head, we will never know.

Leaving doubts as to whether language was comprehended means we are providing potentially comprehensible input, not comprehensible input. Of all the variables that surround us in language teaching, this is the one that is the most easily and immediately controllable.

Nothing does the trick to let the teacher know for sure like asking “What did I just say?” or “What did that mean?” I am at hour four or five of my latest language, through a rough approximation of TPRS methodology (the teacher is not experienced but is doing his best to follow the method). Comprehension checks are so far absent. It’s not a skill the teacher has as yet picked up. The other day, he asked me a question. I answered it in the target language (yes/no). Then he gave the “long” answer — and it turned out I had entirely misunderstood what he was asking, even though my short answer was appropriate. Because I’m a confident, adult language learner doing my 1xth language, and because I pay for my lessons, and because I don’t have any peers to feel silly in front of, I stopped him and asked for an English translation of the question he’d just asked. Because I realized I hadn’t understood it.

Kids don’t do that. We’d all like to believe our kids are different, that they will use the stop sign or hold up the card or whatever to indicate a lack of comprehension. But first of all, the kids who need that the most are those who will become embarrassed the soonest for their frequent use of it — all the more frequent when no one makes sure that meaning has been established correctly and everyone is comprehending what’s being talked about. So they stop signaling. And even if they do signal, all they are signaling is the failure to comprehend. A signal or even a look of confusion is an indicator that there is A problem, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what THE problem is. Only a “brain dump” can do that — the student telling us what he understood, so that we can compare that to the actual meaning and judge where the train went off the rails.

So for TPRS, the slogan is much more positive than for the military. Ask. Then tell.

CI with Local Characteristics

So, you believe that language is acquired through comprehensible input — repeated matching of incoming sounds (or what looks to my ignorant non-signing eyes like hand-waving, in the case of ASL) and meaning by the wonderful, ever-working brain.

So every technique based on comprehensible input should work for everyone, right? Since that is a language universal? There is no society in the world where people with normal hearing and brain function do not acquire a native language without effort or teaching. So everything should work, right?


CI works for everyone. That’s what makes CI-based teaching so powerful. But remember that CI-based teaching is still teaching. We are taking something that is ideal and perfect in its natural setting (a young child with unlimited time, nothing better to do, and intensely interested in doing it) and putting it into a setting that lacks all of those characteristics — a modern school.

TPRS is so successful as a method because it is a comprehensive package. It addresses not only the CI aspect, but also the aspects of natural acquisition that are missing in a modern school setting, by and large. The personalization or  customization of TPRS addresses the lack of interest on the part of many students, who are not inclined to pay attention to large amounts of a foreign language. The fact that we repeat language until it is mastered, and focus on the highest-frequency language, helps with the fact that time in school is not only not unlimited, but actually very, very severely limited. (Think 10,000 hours of input by age 3 versus 100 hours a school year, assuming no assemblies, music lessons, field trips or testing days.)

TPRS is the only method I have seen thus far that successfully addresses all of these problems.  And since these are pervasive problems that affect virtually every school setting I have ever seen in the US and abroad, TPRS is my first choice.

Now, there are some school settings that by their nature present slightly different situations. For those settings, it may be that “alternative” techniques of presenting CI will work. All CI will work to some degree, but the issue is making them work to the degree that TPRS does, since that is the benchmark at present for the most efficient acquisition of language through CI.

Schools in Asia are a good example. I’ve taught in a good many of these, from the low-achieving vo-tech schools with bunches of 13-year-olds sleeping on each other in heaps between classes, to the most elite colleges and the Foreign Service training center for, ahem, a certain foreign government.

One big difference in Asian students is motivation. It’s a weird thing. They have lots of external motivation (largely rooted in passing one test or another), but very, very little desire to actually engage with any language. This is largely because the teaching methods they are exposed to are very legacy and very boring. (There can be non-boring legacy, and there can be boring legacy. This is often the worst of both worlds). So these are kids facing a grammar-heavy diet of language they don’t understand, day after day, and being pressured to perform well by both parents, schoolmates, teachers and society at large.

If you take that population and give them something that is comprehensible — EVEN if there is no personalization or customization, EVEN if the class is heavily teacher-centered — that way of teaching is so much better than what they have been accustomed to all their lives that you get the buy-in at a level you would never get it in the US, just for doing that. Because we do not have a nationwide culture of just about everyone in the kid’s world urging them to get good grades and do well on a national test, especially in foreign language. Not in the same way you see it in Asia. Parent don’t shove their German 1 students toward a German speaker in the US and say “Speak German to the nice man.” Yet that happens all. the. time. in Asia with kids learning English, even when they’re in classes that mean they don’t really speak any.

This is one reason why story-telling fails in the US, but may seem okay in other places. The brilliance of TPRS as a method is that it developed from within the K-12 school situation in the US. It takes on a full set of challenges (rootless kids that need a human relationship they can rely on, kids who are unmotivated, kids who can’t sit still, kids who are tired of not being valued and involved in the educational process despite all the cool “tasks” they are given to do.)

Story-telling relies on the content of the story to hook kids, but it is not their content. I have a confession to make: I’m fluent in Chinese, but I am not at all interested in Chinese children’s stories. I couldn’t care less about Monkey and Piggie and all those famous characters. I know about them, because I’m expected at least to be able to recognize their names, but I would never seek those stories out. If I were told stories about them in class, I would zone out, much as I did back in my own Chinese learning days when we read sprightly dialogues about the street committee and having tea with Mrs. Wang and buying writing brushes.

Getting kids to care isn’t easy. But it’s worth it because caring gives them intrinsic motivation. It makes them want to get fluent because language is now something they enjoy. In places where there is plenty of extrinsic motivation, it might not be crucial. But in the majority of K-12 schools in the US, we have to hook them and we have to hook them with personalization, because it’s the one thing that reliably works. Because far more kids are interested in themselves than are interested in stories the teacher thinks are “good”.

Cold Character Reading: Conditions for Success

Cold Character Reading is very simple in theory: get some oral language into the students’ heads, then have them directly jump to reading that same language (but a story or text they have never seen or heard before, not something they already know the meaning of) using a non-phonetic writing system like Chinese characters, or a system that is not obvious to them, like Russian or Arabic script.

But there are some conditions that must be met for CCR to succeed. Many teachers are trying it, but some are missing out on some of these conditions, and like any method, if some of the necessary conditions are missing, things don’t go as well as they might. A few of the problems that have been coming up lately:

Texts are repetitive, comprehensible, and short.

Two out of three. Cold Character Reading (CCR) texts are repetitive, and they are 100% comprehensible in terms of language (at least at the beginning; but even later on, there really should not be anything added in writing that is not recognizable in speech, unless it is a “side note” such as the snarky comments included in illustrations that are intended to entertain and are clearly set apart so as not to cause anxiety or reduce comprehension of the text).

But these readings must not be short. The reason is that CCR is based on flooding the eyes with visual input that corresponds to oral input the brain has already grasped (can comprehend easily), if not acquired (can correctly output easily).

A too-short CCR text is in invitation to failure. The length of these texts is a big difference between using CCR and using traditional textbook readings (how many of the first “reading passages” in a Chinese textbook for zero-Chinese beginners is 400 characters long?) and it is one of the main principles that makes the technique work. Students need to see the same characters over and over and over to get used to accepting that information visually rather than in speech.

“But I can just use a short reading and have my students read it several times.”

How many times? How will you keep interest high? How will you avoid the brain remembering the content, rather than really reading (getting new and largely unexpected information from the written form)?

It’s not difficult to make a CCR text long, because the people writing them should already know how to circle in their sleep, unconsciously and endlessly if they want to. I’ll say it again: CCR is visual circling. Yes, a written story does not usually involve questions (but it is a wonderful idea to add some, because how else will your students learn to read the written forms of the question words?) And for all the mode-istas out there, if there are questions, there is likely to be “interpersonal” stuff going on, which adds a layer of buzzword acceptability to the process. They read (interpretive) an account of two people communicating with each other (interpersonal). So that’s either “compound interpersonal interpretive language” or just plain stalking. You pick. 😉

CCR texts tend to use lots of related statements or details about something to get those words out there more. He goes to France. He goes to France on Monday. He goes to France with his friend, because his friend also wants to buy a car. Good style in the target language? No, it’s rather juvenile. But that’s what novice students are: language babies. They do not have to read authentic texts right away. We are training them to read authentic texts and to simultaneously be able to process written language at the paragraph level, something that traditional ACTFL Novice-type reading tasks totally fail to do. In effect, we are jumping our readers to a pseudo-Intermediate level of reading, because with the exception of including all possible topics, they are handling that level of language (connected text, transition words, etc.)

The teacher leads the reading, and students join in when they can. Sometimes they won’t join in at all, so the teacher just leads, or they only join in at the very end.

If your students are not reading confidently with you by the fourth or fifth sentence you read in a well-constructed CCR text, you should not continue reading. That situation requires you to really, really think about how much and how good the oral input that is supporting this reading task was. If the answer is “Hmmm…well, maybe not as good as I’d like” or “Probably not enough repetition for them to immediately understand the language”, then the right thing to do is to find an excuse, stop reading, and give more oral input. Trying to do CCR based on incomplete immediate comprehension of the oral language underpinning it will fail, and it will show kids that reading is hard. That is absolutely not what we want.

This is why having solid basic TPRS skills is so crucially important. I sometimes joke with new Chinese TPRS teachers and call the method the “beat-it-to-death method”. From the teacher’s perspective, this should pretty much be the case. In a situation involving artificial input (as opposed to you-are-three-and-have-caretakers-and-an-immersive-environment-and-nothing-better-to-do situation of natural input) we have to achieve high repetitions of language in a dense manner (dense comprehensible input).

CCR relies entirely on “the Voice”. The Voice is that tiny, very limited but very solid instinctual knowledge of what is correct in the target language. It requires a lot of repetition to build. If output comes when the water spills over the top of a bucket naturally because it has been filled, then the “Voice” is that sound, rising in pitch, that you hear when you’re filling your Thermos up and it gets pretty close to the top but it isn’t spilling yet. You know it’s really close to overflowing, but it isn’t quite there yet. But it’s able to make some noise anyway.

It is certainly possible to read Chinese characters without speaking Chinese or even being able to understand spoken Chinese very well. But that involves feats of straight memorization, and usually a lot of decoding. It’s possible to read character texts without this fluency because reading allows time in most cases (with the exception of real-world reading tasks that involve immediately getting the meaning, like reading a highway exit sign). But this is not the kind of reading skill we want our students to focus on.

Since we focus on acquisition, and literacy is not really an acquired skill or an integral part of natural language, we need to both maximize acquisition of the actual language and also achieve maximum literacy skills. So relying on a solidly acquired or at least easily comprehended mass of oral language (and I do mean easily comprehended — flashlight-in-the-eyes-in-the-middle-of-the-night easily comprehended, not yeah-I-can-probably-figure-this-out-then-I’ll-look-at-my-teacher-for-confirmation-oops-I’ll-modify-that-now comprehended) is the best way to simultaneously maximize language and literacy for languages where literacy is a substantially different task than simply recognizing frozen language sounds on paper.

If your students are not giving you a strong choral reading on any sentence you are reading, you should not continue reading. But in this case, I’m talking about the class not sounding “unified” on a single sentence, not the class being consistently unable to read in anything approaching the voices of more than one or two students. We first rule out issues with the underlying language (has there been enough and good enogh oral input?) and then address issues of visual recognition (have the students seen these characters enough yet?) Whenever the response is not strong, that’s an indication that the visual aspect needs more practice. It will happen at the beginning. It will happen when they encounter a new character, even if they successfully guess it pretty quickly based on the Voice. But like everything in TPRS, we are not in a hurry. Unless the reading sounds strong and confident, we stop, compliment the students, maybe do a quick pop-up or ask a question, and then loop right back to tackle that sentence again. If you need to use an excuse, do so (“One more time, and this time let’s have Mickey Mouse read it out loud”) but get them to go through this one sentence again.

What do you do with the “outlyers” — the kids who don’t seem able to read with everyone else?

You give them extra help, yes. But you need to figure out what kind of extra help they need, first. And just as in the above with the whole class, the first order of business is to figure out what the problem really is.

Can the student understand that same language in speech, easily and immediately? If so, the problem is visual recognition of the written forms of that speech. If the student cannot comprehend the same language in speech, the issue is not the written forms (alone), it’s the lack of a firm language base. Some possibilities:

  1. The student has not yet heard the language enough to immediately understand, so even if he can decode individual characters, he loses the meaning of the whole phrase or sentence as he continues along it. (This is what we see with readers taught traditionally. They can bump through reading out loud but can’t make meaning.) Solution: more oral input.
  2. The student has not yet had enough opportunities to recognize that word in unpredictable contexts. Solution: more visual input.
  3. The text the student is being asked to read is too difficult. There are too many words that the student would know in speech but has not encountered previously in written form. This has to do with comprehensibility in a slightly different way than we usually think about it.  Solution: fix the text or use a different one so it is comprehensible.

Comprehensibility of the text is really important. Really, really important. In CCR we are harnessing the Voice to provide massive prediction of what written forms mean. The Voice is also what confirms that the proposed meaning makes sense. If you listen to CCR-taught kids read you will hear some of them actually going through this out loud, especially when they first propose a wrong reading for a word and then stop, look thoughtful, and correct themselves. Quite often they will comment in the native language, “No, that’s not [word], it can’t be…um…[other word]…yeah.”

There are examples of what texts look like at 98% comprehensible, 95% comprehensible and 80% comprehensible here if you read Chinese, and here if you read English. Texts for CCR have to exceed this standard. They need to be 100% comprehensible at the beginning. Remember that there are two ways to make language comprehensible in the TPRS classroom, and reading is no exception: either they have already “gotten it”, or it can be made comprehensible by pausing and pointing.

There shouldn’t be any Pinyin [spelled-out sounds of Chinese substituted for characters] in a CCR text. If the language (oral language) is not comprehensible or cannot be made comprehensible, it’s out of bounds for reading and cannot be in that text.

So some teacher will ask, “How is it that the word ‘because’ is in the very first CCR text the students read after just two or three hours of oral input? Surely they haven’t acquired ‘because’ in that short an amount of oral input?” No, they haven’t acquired it. But they should have gotten enough repetitions of it that it is easy to remind them (which I would do simply by pointing to my logical connectors signs on the wall). In this, reading serves sign-based diffuse input (no one should be circling “because” as an item, because it IS so frequent, or can easily be made so frequent, that it will be input enough naturally. You get it as a “freebie” just by pausing and pointing every time it comes up. This is distinct to the view supporting diffuse input and no purposeful repetition for everything, because function words and logical connectors are so much more semantically-frequent than content words in general).

The Pinyin is right there on the logical connector sign or where you’ve written that word up — just as you would for oral input — on the board. It’s not in the text, because Pinyin doesn’t belong in a written Chinese text. It’s accessible, just as we make the meaning accessible during oral input to students who need to “check in” on it by looking. But we would never say “Target-language target-language because target-language target-language” during oral input, and we shouldn’t present that in writing, either.

CCR texts should use short, simple sentences.

If that’s all you want your kids to be able to handle, sure. But CCR texts should mirror the complexity of language the students can handle in speech. And we should be using compound sentences all the time with our students during oral input. It’s perhaps just a little unnatural to use “although” all the time — but we want them to pick up the logical connectors, because those are the words that dictate the relationships between ideas, regardless of what the topic might be. They are the roadmaps that support comprehension of unfamiliar language because they help to link ideas to known information and, well, logic. So no: bring on the long sentences, the long modifiers, all of that. It’s easier to deal with these things in writing than in pure speech. That having been said, the comprehensibility rule still stands: if the students can’t comprehend the same language when they hear it, they shouldn’t be asked to read it.

CCR is really, really simple. Deceptively so. But if you lose sight of the reasons it works, it’s easy to miss out on some of the conditions that are needed for it to succeed: 99.5-100% comprehensibility, ridiculously plentiful opportunities to recognize the same words in different unexpected contexts, and most importantly of all, a solid Voice underneath it all. With those elements, CCR achieves impressive results and shows high levels of transfer to other tasks, such as recognizing words individually out of context (Riggs, 2016).

TPRS: The Gateway Method

PQA. La Personal Especial. Comprehensible content-based teaching. One-word images. MovieTalk. Quiz time: what one method encompasses all of them?


Many people come around to Teaching with Comprehensible Input and want to start with something other than TPRS. They like MovieTalk. They just want to do La Personal Especial. They don’t want to do storytelling. So they learn the handful of skills necessary to do the activity they have in mind at that moment.

And then they find, in the classroom, that the activity they chose isn’t enough. They need another one. So they have to go back and get more and different training, or watch a bunch of videos, or go to a workshop or two. Yay! Now they can do two activities that are based on CI. But then the cycle repeats itself in a few months.

This is a very short-sighted way of going about things. If you’re only going to be teaching a language for a year or two, maybe. Why not? You’ll get through the year, even if the activities get a bit monotonous. Why bother to invest the time to learn all the skills of TPRS if you don’t plan to be in the classroom long enough to have them pay off?

Because that’s kind of like buying a cutting-edge smartphone and only learning to use it to make voice calls. There’s so much more functionality available. So many more things you can do, if only you know how.

Sure, you can learn to take digital photos using a digital camera. You can learn to time your soft-boiled eggs using one of those little timers you stick on your refrigerator with a magnet. You can learn to use a standalone GPS system. You can do math with a scrap of paper instead of using the smartphone’s calculator.

But what if there were a single device that offered all that functionality? A device that, once you learned how to use it, would let you take pictures on days you felt like doing that, would let you time your eggs and get to where you’re going and add up all the miscellaneous fees on your cable television bill. Something where one class would then equip you with a whole spectrum of skills?

That “device” is TPRS. Because TPRS is the foundation and the forerunner of all these “new” techniques used to deliver comprehensible input, it takes in all of the skills necessary to do each of them. If you look deeply at all the “offshoot” activities, you’ll find that most of them are TPRS minus something. TPRS minus personalization is MovieTalk (storyline exists already). TPRS minus story is Personalized Questions and Answers. A TPRS story minus a problem is a one-word image. All these things are simple, if you have grasped the basic skills of TPRS.

A teacher skilled in TPRS can repeat any language focus she likes almost endlessly without losing student interest, because she knows how to vary language and content without adding new language. He can engage students by talking about topics the students are passionately interested in, while still honoring a curriculum, because he knows how to stay in bounds. She can help students focus on particular grammar points through pop-ups without losing momentum as a class, because she has mastered the art of keeping students at the structural i+1 point. All these skills are things that a teacher masters in the course of learning to do good TPRS. None of the offshoot trainings can make that claim, because they focus on a subset of skills specific to a more narrow activity.

So, the question becomes: why wouldn‘t you learn TPRS first? It’s the gateway method. The method which, once mastered, opens so many other doors as well as the option to use classic TPRS — a well-established standalone method with thousands of practitioners and excellent support in curriculum and reading materials, with skilled trainers and coaches ready to help. If you enter from one of the “side doors”, you not only miss out on really useful skills, you also risk being dazzled by the increasing number of people touting the “newest thing” which is really an old thing polished up and renamed, and who can only do that “newest thing” because they have TPRS training and experience to begin with. It is the TPRS skills that allow all the offshoots to TPRS to flourish — a subset of them for each offshoot.

To get the most broadly applicable, useful set of CI skills, there’s no substitute for TPRS. It’s the gateway method to CI teaching.

Why literal translation doesn’t do it

The question was recently raised on a teachers’ list

Is word-for-word translation (“glossing”) or translation into natural English “better” in the TPRS classroom?

(This translation being referred to is for comprehension checks; no one is talking about having kids translate long passages of text in writing.)

This kind of “translation” is intended as a quick brain dump. The purpose is to answer the question: did the student accurately comprehend the meaning of what was just said or read? So in one sense, it probably doesn’t matter whether the English the student outputs to answer the question is good or bad, as long as the teacher can be sure the meaning has been comprehended.

But the question involved a practice in class where the teacher requests that the kids gloss (state the meaning of each individual word or unit in English, regardless of correct English word order or the way English would naturally be expressed) rather than translate. The rationale is that students can better understand the word order of the unfamiliar target language this way. But we need to ask: do we want kids to understand word order (which is learning), or acquire it?

What will this sort of translation accomplish? It will let the teacher know whether the student knows the meaning of each individual word, but at the cost of switching the student’s mind over to doing just that: individually translating each individual word. This focuses the student on the word order or the individual words, not on the meaning of the language as a whole. It necessarily takes the student out of the zone of unconscious comprehension and thrusts him into an analytical place. Because it is not natural for a native English speaker to say “The balloons to her they-please” instead of “She likes balloons.”

If the student is going to output that sentence in Spanish, and the word order is not already “in the ear” (acquired), so that it falls out of the mouth naturally, then the student has to use the Monitor, or fall back on the native language. The Monitor isn’t only for writing, but it’s really only useful for writing, or maybe decoding reading, which can be done at one’s own pace. For speaking and listening, unless someone is a really unusually fast processor, knowing rules or mnemonics does not help, because how is there going to be time for a student to stop and say, “Okay, the thing to-the-person it-pleases” and then substitute those words? There isn’t. Not if there’s going to be a normal conversation going on.

But, people say, it is useful for writing. So, shouldn’t we push this sort of translation in class, to help with word order in writing? Maybe. But given the limited class time in most K-12 programs, I want the majority of writing I read to reflect what has been acquired. It’s easy for me to be lulled into a false sense of security if everyone can output something in writing, even if it’s through the use of non-acquired language scaffolded by rules or mnemonics. And I want to always know what the students have not yet acquired.

Comprehensible input is what drives acquisition. More comprehensible input is what’s needed before a student has acquired a particular structure, whether that’s word order, verb endings, or whatever. While CI is being provided, we do comprehension checks to see whether the comprehension is taking place correctly (if students match language with the wrong meaning, it’s not helping much.) But a comprehension check should be checking the comprehension of the language, not its parts.

When someone has truly comprehended something, it’s effortless to output it in the native language, because we can express whatever we like in our native language without effort (there may be some limitations, depending on information density and detail, but for the kind of language encountered in the K-12 TPRS classroom, I think it’s a safe assumption). It’s counterintuitive, but the kind of short translation (comprehension checks) we ask for in class is really NOT translation as most people think of it (going from one language to another). It is the sort of pure oral interpretation that comes from what interpreters call “detextualization”.

Detextualization is just a fancy term for isolating pure meaning — “removing” the text, which consists of the specific words from some particular language. So that process has an extra “step”: one language –> pure meaning –> another language. (As a point of trivia, this is why interpreters do not use shorthand to take notes; instead, we note down pure meaning, not in any particular language. That way, I can look at my notes, see meaning alone not tied to any language, and then speak whatever language I happen to have a fluent control of to express that meaning without effort.)

That’s exactly the sort of thing we’re looking for with a comprehension check. I don’t want a decoding of the sentence I’m checking. I want to know what meaning was immediately “gotten” by the student. That tells me a couple of things:

  1. The student has enough working memory in the target language to retain the meaning of the pieces unconsciously until a holistic meaning has been constructed in his brain. This is a big impediment to people who don’t have a firm grasp of vocabulary; they will often get “hung up” on an unknown or unfamiliar word that can’t be decoded immediately, and they then lose track of the language that is coming in after that word. So good working memory performance shows me something about how deeply vocabulary and grammar have been acquired.
  2. The student is not linking the two languages. There’s no need for that (nor does any standard recommend or require it), and it’s really detrimental to becoming proficient in a new language. Under old teaching methods, students had to do that, because they were constantly asked to output things in speech and writing that they had not yet acquired, and they could do nothing else but fall back on the native language.
  3. The student is focusing on meaning, not form. This indicates that the student is speaking/hearing/reading/writing the language, not about the language. Contrastive grammatical analysis supports activities where there’s time to engage the Monitor, but it doesn’t drive acquisition to the degree to which comprehensible input (focused on meaning) does.

As a pop-up, glossing by the teacher strikes me as just fine. The purpose of pop-ups is to focus attention on form, in very short bursts. But it seems to me the core purpose of comprehension checks is pure meaning, and glossing makes many things unnecessarily complicated as a result.

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