On a teachers’ discussion group, one new TPRS teacher made this comment:

Have been feeling like I’ve been dying all week. Kids are not into it yet at all and just look at me with bored expressions even when I’m standing on a chair acting ridiculous.

Ewwwwwww….everybody knows that feeling, like you’re Ann Coulter at the roast of Rob Lowe. Tough crowd. Tough room. Crickets after everything you’re sure there should be a reaction to.

But what is really happening here? Is this TPRS, or is this a teacher trying to entertain a class? Why is the teacher standing on a chair acting anything at all?

It’s easy to get into the idea that TPRS is all about exaggerated props and acting out ridiculous stories and big expressions and peals of laughter every five seconds. That’s what it is in workshops. And workshops are where people get sold on the method and decide to dive in. Which is great, really. Diving into TPRS is a great thing to do, and it will change your teaching life for the better.

If you can keep it going.

When I hear about a teacher working hard to do TPRS, and the “work” isn’t figuring out circling questions or coming up with structures or writing up parallel readings, I tremble a little inside. Because most of the time, it turns out that the teacher is storytelling. Even if he’s asking a lot of questions, if the teacher feels that he has to act crazy to get the kids to listen, there’s something wrong.

So let’s go back to the basics.

  • Is the input slow enough? Is it comprehensible enough? Are those cognates being understood in speech? (Just because they look similar doesn’t mean they are recognizable to beginners.)
  • Has the teacher introduced the “rules” of the TPRS “game”? These don’t have to be presented as hard-and-fast I’m-going-to-grade-you-on-this class rules, but rather simply “rules of the game”. As in, when we play this storytelling thing, these are the rules we’ll use.
  • If the rules have been introduced, is the teacher stopping and pointing to the rule broken each and every time, so as to train the students what is wanted?
  • Is the teacher really personalizing (and this is possible from the first day), rather than throwing out something she thinks is “cool” and hoping for the best?

It always astonishes me when people accuse TPRS of being a teacher-centered method. So much has to come from the students to make TPRS work. The personalization or customization piece is so, so important to making the stories or the conversation take off. Sometimes the hardest piece of TPRS for a newcomer to the method is letting go: letting the students take the responsibility for making class “cute” or “interesting” or “cool” or whatever is appropriate to that group.

In legacy methods, it’s on the teacher. I used to stay at school until 6 or 7 at night, looking for fun stuff, cutting and pasting, making pairwork, writing stuff. It was all from me to them. And probably about half the time, no matter how brilliant my design was, no matter how colorful the visuals or how great the worksheets, it bombed. Not that they didn’t complete it. But it was that same flat, desperate feeling of “how many minutes left in class?” The discomfort of feeling judged and found lacking by a roomful of fourteen-year-olds.

TPRS is not meant to entertain. If that happens, that’s great. It’s meant to catch students’ interest (through topics that are either about themselves or about things they care about) to get them to listen to or read lots and lots of language they can understand. The teacher’s responsibility is to make it comprehensible, and facilitate the personalization — not do the personalization for them.

Some classes take awhile to “get into it”. That’s okay. But keep your feet on the ground, stay off chairs, and wait the students out to take ownership of their text, instead of trying harder and harder to entertain them into it.