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.

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