Substituting ingredients

There’s been some discussion of late about why some people feel (myself included) that so-called “TCI” (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) should not be lumped in with TPRS. There are number of reasons for this.

First off, TPRS is a self-contained method. It gives a teacher all the tools that are needed, all the techniques required, to deliver a curriculum (which is a separate thing, simply a list of what language the school district has deemed required for a certain course) to students. If a teacher knows how to circle correctly (meaning unpredictably and  on as-yet unacquired language) and the teacher has the skills necessary to create a shared “text” (in the linguistic sense: this means a conversation, narrative, story, whatever) in cooperation with student input while still imperceptibly controlling the content (both for curricular purposes and for school-appropriateness) — that teacher needs nothing more to ensure that the district’s curriculum will be delivered.

Specifically, TPRS utilizes dense (lots of repetition) 100% comprehensible input delivered via a specific questioning technique (circling) to build a shared narrative (dialogue, conversation, discussion, story) about topics that come from the students themselves (personalization or customization). It emphasizes large amounts of reading, but not as the primary means of acquisition; reading is possible because language is already “in the ear”. (This may not be such a big deal in Spanish, but try teaching Chinese.) TPRS lacking any of these elements tends to fail, and most accounts of “failed TPRS” on the wires today are easily diagnosed as suffering from a lack of one or more of these things.

TCI is a newer, umbrella term. It stretches to encompass anything that is “CI”, since the only requirement is that teaching be going on and that the teaching be “with” CI. Now, what exactly does “with” mean? In the minds of those who came out of a TPRS tradition, it means CI-focused instruction in which the input is still as close to 100% comprehensible as possible. In the minds of others, however, it is coming to mean a huge variety of things, both as to whether CI is indeed the focus of the class, and as to “how” comprehensible the comprehensible input should be. (I will not disgress here, but suffice it to say that there are few words in the English language that have been stretched so far from their original meaning as ‘comprehensible’ in today’s foreign language teaching circles.)

So, doing task-based instruction using some comprehensible input is considered by some to be TCI. But here’s the elephant in the room. Task-based instruction champions “pushed output” (having students interact with each other and produce new language, since the belief is that producing it somehow helps them acquire it correctly). And the “best practices” of task-based instruction are based on going through an entire “learning episode” within a period of instruction, which means that there is little or no opportunity for that language, however comprehensible it may be (and that is an entirely separate question to be considered) to get into the ear before its use (output) is called for. Clearly this is at odds with the idea that language is acquired through comprehensible INPUT. So even though a task-based class may be incorporating input that is comprehensible to a greater or lesser degree (and many task-based teachers refuse to use translation because “they will have to deal with this in the real world” and so on), the lesson focus is not on comprehensible input. CI is almost an incidental element.

What about content-based CI instruction? There are teachers who are using the TPRS questioning techniques (circling) to tell (not ask) stories (actually, generally non-fiction content or standardized legends from other cultures). Shouldn’t that be considered TPRS? IMO, it should not. Can the language presented in this way be acquired? Sure, if it’s comprehensible enough. There are relatively few teachers who have the “ear” to produce a sufficiently simplified version of any “set” content so that first-year students can handle the amount of unknowns required. And presenting specific content often requires the incorporation of very low-frequency words that are themselves not relevant or interesting to students (like having kids “learn” all the specific terms for Chinese New Year’s products and processes — until and unless they end up in China, these are just not something  sufficiently in the student’s experience to merit taking up a “word slot” in the limited amount of vocabulary that can be effectively TPRS’d in any given period of time).

But most importantly, losing the personalization/customization piece means a corresponding loss of engagement. Unless students are very intrinsically motivated, most middle- or even high-schoolers are not so fascinated by the stories of another culture that they will pay the kind of attention we would like to have. I’ve made this mistake before: what could be more interesting than the story of the Nian Monster, a Chinese New Year legend? Hey, children getting eaten, firecrackers, monsters, a brave villager taking on the monster — what’s not to like? Pretty much everything. This sort of lesson is fine as an occasional thing — after all, it’s using most of the successful TPRS principles (CI, repetition, patterned questioning). But if you try to do this every day, you are storyTELLING, not storyASKING, and every day you go into the classroom, you are worrying about whether today’s offering will Please.

Trainers today are eager to Please as well. Teachers want to go to a workshop and come out on Saturday afternoon with something they can take into the classroom and use on Monday. This is possible, if one needs only to “learn” one skill out of the TPRS skillset to do a particular activity (assuming it’s possible to learn one such skill in a day, which I take leave to doubt). But the piece that’s missing is basic, foundational skills.

Back “in the old days” (yeah, when the earth was cooling), the teachers who learned TPRS did TPRS. For awhile. For quite awhile, in most cases. Then they might try something slightly different, or modify something. They would test out that modification for quite awhile. And after five or ten or more years doing that, they might think, “I feel solid on this stuff now. I can teach someone else how to do TPRS.” They were not, for the most part, trying to teach other people THEIR particular spin on TPRS. They were not branding their workshop content, renaming it, or trying to make it look Just A Little Different From TPRS(tm) so as to build their own fame. They were not teaching “different things”. They were teaching the same, plain old brand of TPRS that had been working well for them for many years.

If there is a lack identified in classroom practice, by all means, try to fill it in. But there is also a great deal of wisdom in doing what has been shown to work, or at least doing it until you are very, very competent at doing it, and only then changing it. It’s like the recipe reviews on the Internet. “Four stars out of five. This was a pretty good recipe. I substituted maple syrup for the brown sugar, used some ground beef I had instead of the pork chops, put it in the microwave instead of baking it, and cut the liquid in half. But, not bad.”

One thing at a time. If you’re making pork chops, make pork chops.

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