A request for information was recently posted on the internet:

 I have a colleague that wants me to help her find a book that teaches about CI but she is not interested in TPRS.

That’s kind of like saying you want to meet your long-lost cousins, but not your grandmother.  TPRS is the grandmother of K-12 comprehensible-input based language teaching.

TPRS is the only widely used, highly organized CI-based method out there. It’s the one with the longest history of extensive utilization in actual K-12 teaching. It’s the one with actual CI-friendly textbooks available. (Textbooks are not the root of all evil. Teaching mindlessly from drill-and-kill textbooks is evil.) There are more training opportunities available for TPRS than for any other CI-based method of which I am aware. That’s why TPRS is a method, and CI is an approach. TPRS is a particularly mature way of providing CI in a K-12 classroom.

Of course it’s perfectly possible to use comprehensible input (of whatever sort) without using any  TPRS-specific techniques. The problem is, for the most part it’s the techniques that come directly out of TPRS that allow teachers to make the input comprehensible in the first place. That’s why many teachers who say they “don’t want to do TPRS” are nonetheless using a large number of skills that owe their existence in current classroom practice to earlier TPRS teachers.

These elements that were developed and refined in TPRS are taught together very effectively, as a package, in TPRS training:

  • Circling questions.
  • Principled use (not abuse) of English translation to establish meaning and check comprehension.
  • 100% definition of what “comprehensible” means.
  • Personalization or customization.
  • Expanding a conversation or narration by using detail questions (“fishing”).
  • Cold Character Reading (for non-phonetic scripts).

All these things were developed (in reference specifically to providing comprehensible input in a practical manner in a modern classroom) within the framework of TPRS. Yes, you can find many of them in other places, individually, but I can’t think of another method that trains consistently in and uses all of them. Like it or not, TPRS was the first really widespread practical K-12 application of comprehensible input as a purposeful method (not just “drop them in and see what happens”) to a wide variety of classroom settings. No matter what your ultimate goal in CI teaching is, it makes sense to master these TPRS skills for use in whatever precise form of CI you like later on.  And these are things that are (or should be) taught in a very focused way in any good TPRS training. They don’t tend to be taught systematically, together, or effectively in most “general” PDs out there, even ones that “focus” on comprehensible input. (The exception may be some workshops run by teachers who come out of a TPRS tradition and simply assume that these skills will be used in other types of CI teaching.)

So even if one doesn’t intend to do TPRS, the only part of TPRS that does not overlap with “other” forms of CI is the story. All the other skills of TPRS are either essential for, or by far the most efficient way of, doing comprehensible input and having students make progress in the language under normal school conditions.

Train in TPRS, and you already have the whole enchilada.

Rebranding is rampant these days in CI circles. Some people are selling “new methods” which are TPRS, without the stories, with another name. A lot of teachers don’t want to do TPRS, either because they feel stories are “silly” (not realizing there is far more to good TPRS than just stories), or because they don’t like the cult of personality or missionary fervor that some feel surrounds some of its proponents, or because they don’t want to take the time to learn the skills of full-on TPRS and prefer to do things that require less skill (with apologies to those who enjoy non-TPRS input techniques, but since they involve replacing one of the elements of TPRS (creating the story on the fly with students while meeting specific language goals) with a pre-made component, they do require less skill). Most of these end up being “TPRS Minus” something. Minus the on-the-fly story. Minus the personalization. Minus the language focus. Just not (hopefully) minus the comprehensible input, which is after all the ONLY thing truly required for acquisition to occur.

Is there a learning curve to use TPRS well? Yes, there is. But TPRS training is going to be the most efficient way to get the individual skills that make language comprehensible to students, even if you don’t end up story-asking.

Is it possible to teach people TPRS skills? Yes, it is.  Definitely so. But to do that, teachers have to be willing to recognize that there are specific skills involved in TPRS. When coaches focus on skill-building in teachers who want those skills, the teachers make progress. It’s great to offer emotional support and so on, but if no one tells a teacher trainee what he is doing wrong in terms of skills (when that is clearly visible to an experienced person) for fear of hurting his feelings, what is really being hurt is his progress. I’m not saying be harsh or abusive, but why does someone come to a workshop if not to improve?

And if trainers, in their turn, do not sit down and think long and hard and deep about what is really going on underneath TPRS (skills), and how to explain and train each skill, trainees will find it difficult to make progress toward really doing TPRS. And that quite often leads to outcomes like the one cited: interest in CI, but not TPRS. TPRS was Blaine Ray doing “stuff” (admittedly good stuff) until Susan Gross thought about it and came up with steps to TPRS, so that people could “get it”. Now we need to go one layer deeper and think of what individual skills are foundational to each step, and how we can most efficiently train them, so people can “get them” and use them for any kind of CI they like. Again, experienced TPRS people are the one who are most likely to have the greatest insight on comprehensibility and the skills and tricks to get there, since they’ve been in the CI game longer than the mainstreamers who are now starting to come a bit late to the CI party.

There’s a reason why so many of the most effective non-strictly-TPRS CI teachers come out of a TPRS tradition, and why many teachers who believe they are using CI but are not showing results are largely not coming out of strong TPRS roots (but often, instead, from “I went to a workshop” seven years ago or something similar). The results come from the skills and techniques that are used together in TPRS. And if you look closely at those effective non-strictly-TPRS CI teachers, you’ll see a great many of these skills being used — and see them not being used, in the case of the ineffective “CI” teachers.

I personally do not feel that the “newer” ways of CI are necessarily improvements on TPRS. They are different. In the hands of a skilled teacher, they work just dandy, as does TPRS. But the offshoots lack any fundamental difference that puts them head and shoulders above TPRS in all regards. Whether in terms of the amount of preparation required, the inability to target language (necessary for most K-12 teachers who work in a public school district with a curriculum), the lack of engagement that stems from no personalization — there is generally some sort of discounting evident in comparison with plain old TPRS.

What way of teaching is right for someone depends on the individual teacher’s situation, experience and training, of course. But no matter which branch of the CI K-12 classroom teaching tree one wants to climb out along, starting from the roots — TPRS — is a good idea.