One reason why some folks aren’t keen on TPRS® is that it doesn’t embrace the themed unit. Most textbooks and curriculum documents are organized into themes. “My Family.” “School and Home”. “Celebrations”.

Those are great, if you believe that giving people the ability to say a whole lot about a very little is the way to go. TPRS® does things the opposite way: we give students the tools to say a little about a whole lot of things, and then gradually add to their repertoire until they can say a whole lot about a whole lot of things. Our focus is on structure, and structure is a sort of thematic-neutral underpinning that, like the useful “little black dress”, goes with everything. You only need to grab a different accessory (look up the specific word you need if you don’t know it) and you’re good to go.

But the problem with “objecting” to a method that doesn’t embrace thematic units is that there is just no basis for that objection. UNLESS, of course, someone has imposed a pacing guide that is unit-based. Which, IMO, is a gross infringement of academic freedom, if there are teachers who wish to use TPRS in the classroom to teach a course that lasts more than the duration of a single unit.

The key issue ends up being common assessments. If no one is demanding common assessments, the Spanish II curriculum is to be imparted over a year’s time, and a summative assessment should only come at the end of that time. There will, of course, be numerous formative assessments, and these formative assessments will provide data to give progress reports (which are
PROGRESS indicators, not grades of mastery!) during the course of the year, as well as to inform instruction. We give a LOT of little assessments so that we can stay on track and know what’s being acquired and what’s not.

The reason “unit assessments” are an issue is that they demand that certain grammar points and certain thematic content be “mastered” by a specific date and, because of that, presented prior to that date in a clump.

Clumping is for cat litter, not acquiring language efficiently. Be careful here — I’m talking about holistic language acquisition, which is what we care about — not ‘vocabulary building’. Thematic lists are fine for students who are not concentrating on acquiring the basic structure of the language, and who are ready to move into extensive reading and listening to broaden their language on the basis of their pseudo-native-speaker mastery 99% of its grammar.

Spreading similarly-themed language out a bit provides a more incremental model of fluency in the learner’s head (isn’t it more satisfying to know that you can talk about eating, buying, traveling and wearing clothes, and will be learning more details about doing these things, than it is to “know” the Post Office from postcards to stamps to registered letters to packages to senders to recipients to postmen to mail delivery trucks to service windows…but nothing else in Spanish?)

People who acquire a language through spiraling will have some practical, real-world ability to use the language no matter where they are in the process. That’s important in the real world. Not everybody can stick with the program to the end. People taught with spiraling come away with a bit of useful language, and probably the willingness to expand that at some future date. People who are taught a language through thematic units will believe they can “only” use the language in the locations that were “covered”.

I strongly believe spiraling is a powerful tool to make language more generalizable and to help learners realize that they can recycle and reuse what they have acquired in many different situations. With thematic units, we are limiting their thinking. Doesn’t sound very “21st Century” and “the challenges they will face don’t even exist yet” to me.

I believe the concept we need for TPRS is not curriculum mapping, but a new one: curriculum tagging. Just as people do with blog posts, a tag or tags are applied to the item(s) taught on a specific day. If you circled the heck out of “Bob buys a car” in Spanish, you could tag it as “present tense”, “3PS” (third person singular), “regular AR verbs”, “buying and selling”, “transportation”. You would also add the Main Theme that everyone is so nuts about in the curriculum, of course. 😉

Tagging curriculum is more efficient than curriculum mapping since it serves to show not only what is being taught but when and how often. It works simultaneously to keep track of a curriculum document, multiple sets of standards, and anything else you need to make sure is completed. It’s easy to sort, mix and match, and really know what functional areas you are not hitting enough. Like standards-based grading, it gives much more information about what is really going on in the classroom and what needs to be done. And it’s a powerful tool to show the TPRS nay-sayers just how the curriculum document is indeed being honored.