A teacher recently asked for suggestions for how to modify TPRS to suit the needs of an adult “post-beginner” class, which would be taught for 2 hours a day. The goals of the class, which is for ESL, would be to equip the learners with the language to be able to rent housing, shop, and take care of other items of daily life in the US. (Post-beginner, apparently, is defined as ‘being able to link letters to sounds in the language’ — not a high endorsement for structural acquisition or fluency. But so it goes in the legacy methods teaching world.)

It may not be immediately obvious how “telling wacky stories” can bring a learner to the sort of proficiency needed to take care of such a variety of tasks. The legacy method teachers would, of course, run a unit on each topic, with rigidly segregated grammar points accompanying each. The first unit would most likely be “greetings”, followed by “family members” (the favorite topic to “teach” the copula verb ‘to be’) and then ramp it up to conjugated verbs in the present tense for some other thematic unit, and so on.

I’ve often posted that TPRS should not be thematic, and I hold to that. But “themes” in the legacy teaching world usually refer to a unit of study that lasts for two or three weeks, during which an inordinate number of vocabulary words “related to” the theme are taught (actually, memorized, quizzed, and then “practiced” a few times) and tested. Part of the flexibility and interest of TPRS is that it doesn’t beat a dead horse; things that have been acquired aren’t repeated endlessly, and vocabulary is spiraled, not dropped in resounding hollow chunks on top of learners’ heads.

Spiraling of vocabulary just means that today we mentioned someone going to DMV to get his license. We didn’t talk about filling out the form, taking a number from the little machine, standing in line, having the ink run out in the pen chained to the counter, and all that. We simply dealt with the idea of someone going to DMV to get a license. And we used this item (“is going to DMV to get his license”) over and over, in questions and statements, until the learners were comfortable with it. Then it will be presented in a reading passage in a different context. But still without all the “extended” thematic words that would normally have been memorized on Day 1 of a legacy thematic unit.

Think of TPRS “theming” as tagging, in the sense of blog posts. A well-populated blog may have dozens or even hundreds of posts that belong to a certain category. No one expects the blogger to say everything he has to say about a certain topic in a single mammoth post. Rather, the subject evolves over time, as the blogger adds more and more entries, each probably dealing with a slightly different angle or perspective on the topic. (I’ve advocated for curriculum tagging rather than mapping in the past, since mapping presupposes a “chunk” of topic rather than the natural inclusion of topical items over the course of time. In fact, when I just googled to find my own reference link, I was amused to see this is now a trending topic in 2014 among non-TPRS teachers…)

But we digress. How should TPRS be “modified” to suit these adult learners of ESL in a two-hour class?

First of all, break up the class. Time-wise, I mean. Two hours is too long for anyone, let alone a beginner. I take my new language lessons in half-hour sessions and find this suits my attention span and ability to soak things in. I have better progress focusing on less language for less time than more language for more time. You may need to insert activities that are not specifically acquisition oriented. Do so judiciously, for the purpose of breaking up the brain effort. Listening intently and giving very close answers to large numbers of rapid questions is not easy, despite the judgement by many that TPRS learners are “not engaged” or “not actively learning”. (Take a new language via TPRS and tell me if you’re not tired at the end of a session.)

Second, don’t worry about jumping right into the “objectives” of practical interactions like DMV, post office, rentals, and so on. The groundwork that TPRS lays for general fluency in the beginning hours is so valuable and high frequency and just plain usable that these things will not be difficult when their time comes. Devote the first hours to getting the highest-frequency words and structures of the language into their heads. This includes the many, many questions they’ll be hearing and answering. All the phrases in the world will be useless to them if they can’t manipulate the language to answer and understand the answers to their own questions, which is the point that most “learn these key phrases” language scourges choose to ignore.

Third, trust in the brain’s ability to see connections. Students do not have to acquire the language through the exact situational role-plays they will eventually be using it in to have it work in the end. For some groups, a little guidance may be beneficial to help them to make use of the language they know in new situations, but letting go of the rigid task-based idea of “we train a task so they can do that task” gives huge benefits in terms of general usability of language. There is no English for Special Purposes. There is only High-Frequency English Vocabulary and Structure followed by More Vocabulary I’ll Need to Do This or That. If we make sure they have the first, they can easily grab the latter throughout their lives.