TPRS from a Textbook

Every so often someone asks: how do I teach TPRS from an “uncooperative” textbook? Like, one that has massive lists of vocabulary? I had to do this in the past with Buen Viaje (al Infierno), and this is how I did the organization work before starting the year.

First, goo through the textbook and make a list. I use a spreadsheet. List everything in there.

List every vocabulary word in a column.
Then in the column next to it, put “1” for “This is crucially important for students at this level”, “2” for “this would be nice if I have time to get to it” and “3” for “who in the world thought this was necessary for students at this level”. List verbs as infinitives. Things like “el quirofáno” in the Level 2 book are good examples of Group 3 stuff.  😉 Anything I have to look up as a fluent speaker having used the language for 30+ years goes into Group 3 unless it has immediate and obvious interest or other value.

Then sort your list by those ratings.

All the “1” words are stuff you will teach through TPRS/CI.
All the “2” words are stuff you will hope to teach through TPRS/CI but realistically may end up quizzing only.
All the “3” words are stuff you will quiz if you are required to do so, but that you are definitely teaching for recognition only just in case it appears on that common final.

Then copy the “1” word list into a fresh spreadsheet.
In the next column, type =RAND()  to get a random number.
Copy that formula down so that every word has a random number next to it.
Now sort the list by that random number column a couple of times. The idea is to eliminate the strong thematic bias of the textbook. Take it from someone who did it — it is difficult to come up with six consecutive stories about the Post Office and keep it all interesting to 14 year olds. It is much easier to mix things up.

Don’t be afraid to “cheat” a little — if the three (four, five, whatever) words at the top of your final list after sorting don’t seem to “go together”, just cheat and swap in a different word.
Then, you TPRS using an appropriate amount of that language, just starting casually from the top and working your way downward. You will have to write readings (which can just be stories parallel to your class story, or completely different stories using the same vocabulary and language).

Also don’t be afraid to put in some “poison” — a word that is of true interest to the kids that isn’t present on the textbook list. Things like “texting”, “taking a selfie” and so forth work, or even “interesting” adjectives which can be tied to school-wide English vocabulary goals in many cases. But make sure these are only for “color” and are treated sort of like an in-joke for your class, because your true goals are (primary) to get the structure into their heads, and (secondary) to equip them with the specific vocab they’ll need for the specific final exam they have to do.

An even better way (but very data-intensive) would be to pick a Spanish novel and backwards design from that, checking which vocab and structures are in it and the textbook, and then quizzing the stuff that’s not in the novel.

The best way to do it would be simply to teach TPRS and read lots of novels, and not to worry about the common assessment — but I’ve seen the Buen Viaje tests. IMO you probably can’t do that if they are insisting on giving htem out of the box or nearly so. Otherwise, this is time to influence assessments and argue for proficiency-based testing, since the department is supportive of different teaching approaches. Testing should reflect that to reflect academic freedom.

So, you’ve got your Important Words.
Now, combine them. Make the mythical Items. Which no one can really define properly. Except that they are sort of lumps of language that go together (we might call them “collocations” in one sense) which are not personalized (there is no particular person doing the action, even if a generic noun like “obispo” or “panda” is the subject. We would still need to establish what the bishop’s name is, how tall he is, what color socks he wears, and so on. The “item” would just be “el obispo come helado” assuming you need to teach obispo, comer and helado. All that detail just a) gives the kids ownership; it’s now THEIR bishop and they care about him (or want to kill him, whichever, doesn’t matter) and b) gives you lots of cheap reps of “obispo” as well as LOTS of really important language that you get “for free” just by constantly asking those details every. single. day.

So, slap some verbs and nouns together. Add an adverb or adjective occasionally. Then pick your “shadows” — alternatives that you could ask questions about and get those “no” answers. They can be sensible or not.

comprar un coche grande
(lavar)   una   (enfermera) (violeta)   [shadows]

Es correcto, clase! No se puede comprar una enfermera violeta. No hay enfermeras violetas. Y no se puede comprar una persona. Una enfermera es una persona, si o no? Si! Así que Bob compra un coche grande. No compre una enfermera violeta. Y una enfermera verde? Compra una enfermera verde? No. Por supuesto, no compra una enfermera, ni verde, ni violeta, ni roja.  Es ridiculo. Prefiere las enfermeras azules. No, no, no! Miento. No compra una enfermera azul. Compra un coche. Un coche grande. De qué color es el coche que compra Bob? Compra un coche grande, verdad? De qué color es?…. etc. etc.

(Three-fers are only the beginning, you see. The “alibi” is the main thing — the alibi is where you explain why it’s totally impossible that the “no” item would ever be the correct answer, and it gives you TONS of room for repetitions and very rich language input.)

Shadows are a really important way to get a lot of vocabulary in there. If you ask a “shadow” word in a ridiculous context, chances are the kids will pick it up right away. They will remember “shower” from  “Does Bob put on his shoes in the bowling alley or does he shower in the bowling alley?” far more easily than they will with the typical drudge thematic unit arguing about what time fictional Juan gets up, has his breakfast, and washes his face.

Although you are not circling those shadow words and verbs per se, you are getting a lot of mileage out of them. You should plan your shadow words as ruthlessly and cold-bloodedly as you do your “main items” if you are in a situation like this where every second counts. (Well, it always does, but sometimes the assessment allows you to go a little bit more freely.)

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