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.

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