Since I attended the SCOLT conference, I have begun to implement a lot of new ideas into my daily teaching. Some of these things are a bit outside the TPRS mainstream, but I think that even if it isn’t “TPRS approved,” there can still be value. Specifically, I am talking about “forcing” student output.
I am on a journey with my students and I am learning as much as they are as we go through the year. Just like most of my students with their Spanish proficiency, my TPRS proficiency began at novice low. Just like my students, I have made major gains in my proficiency, but I felt I was reaching a plateau. I have felt stuck, not knowing how to get the students to the level above just acquisition. How do I get them to synthesize that newly acquired knowledge and use it in original interpersonal interactions?
Most of what I have read and researched about TPRS is about students at the beginning of their language journey-they shouldn’t need to produce at the very beginning, but what about the students who have had a lot of input and are eager to start speaking? As I move along my own Spanish teaching proficiency scale, I am finding that I have to do the same kinds of things that the students have to do to progress: take chances (they use dictionaries and other tools to move beyond what we are doing in class; I use ideas from all over the language teaching spectrum to make sure that they get CI and also the opportunity to express themselves), make mistakes (everyone in here experiments and gets things wrong, but that doesn’t stop us from trying again), and get messy (linguistically 😉 ).
(Thanks for the advice Ms. Frizzle!)
TPRS and Student Output
In my short time as a teacher and in my even shorter time using TPRS, I have observed that students at the very beginning of their language learning journey, the novice lows and even some of the novice mids, just can’t provide output. They get scared, they are intimidated, and they are shy; they just aren’t confident enough to get their words out in the TL. They can say “sí” or “no” or say phrases that they have heard over and over, but they are not putting them together into anything resembling sentences. They are in communicative survival mode – they can get their responses out in 1-2 words or memorized phrases.
TPRS, for my students, has had the most immediate effect on the students at the very beginning. Those first days of using TPRS were exciting for me and for the students—the kids could understand what I was saying in the TL; I didn’t have to speak in L1 for them to understand what was going on! But as time has worn on, the excitement part has worn off a little and we are building something in their minds that doesn’t have the same immediate outward appearance of building knowledge.
My favorite part about using TPRS is its natural fit for language learning. Students listen to and absorb the language and they have no pressure to produce anything other than answers to questions—they are allowed (and encouraged) to just sit and process language and interact when they feel comfortable. It allows those who are shy to get comfortable and it allows those who are more adventurous to extend beyond their abilities. It is a wonderful tool for language teaching (as I have said many times in the past).
After they get comfortable, though, I am finding that they are eager to expand their speaking abilities but don’t really know how. At this point, at the higher end of novice mid, the students want to speak but they haven’t had enough input for it to come naturally. In my school, I have an added disadvantage here: the kids only have Spanish class 1-2 times per week, so they feel like they are making no progress. They have had TPRS instruction for 1.5 years, but their progress is not the same as the progress they have in their classes that are 5 days a week. They feel that they have had Spanish forever, but they also feel that they aren’t making progress. Sometimes, I have to show them that they are indeed making progress, which is something that I talked about here.
An Expanded Daily Routine
After thinking about this challenge, I came up with a solution: Do more kinds of things every day. This is related to the idea behind my last post on Looking Back to Move Forwards. I have started to implement some new procedures in class every day to get the students speaking. The goal is to have them start to feel some success and build some confidence in their skills. In every class period, regardless of grade level or proficiency level, I am trying to do all of these activities:
- Student-Student Conversation Students will find out how others are doing by asking ¿Cómo estás? in younger grades; older grades move beyond this and have other quick conversations based on the vocabulary that we have already talked about. The idea is that the students can use what they have acquired in new contexts and with new people. I think they’re getting pretty tired of hearing me talk; it’s time for me to let go and let them figure things out for themselves.
- Circumlocution exercises and/or games – I have given the students some key phrases to help them to be able to describe things, so we play a modified version of Password or we play 20 questions or other games in which the students have to talk about words that one student knows but the other doesn’t. These are phrases that they can use to get around the words they don’t know so that they can truly negotiate meaning with their partners.
- TPR activities and/or games like Simon Says (especially when presenting new vocabulary for a story or activity) – These activities are always a hit and they have such great potential for CI and for natural interactions between me and the students and between the students themselves.
- PQA on vocab from story or on students’ lives – Now we are starting to get to the everyday things that the kids have been doing all year — talking with me about their lives (with me doing most of the linguistic heavy lifting, not really letting them use their own skills to communicate)
- Story asking or Reading and comprehension activities
In the past, I have not done all of these things. Most of the time, my class started with prayer (I am in a parochial school), a quick PQA on how the students are feeling with a quick game of Getting it Wrong mixed in, and then right into the story or reading activity. There was no opportunity for the students to talk to each other in the TL. At the beginning this was no problem because, as I wrote about above, the students didn’t really have any ability in the language. Now that they have the ability and the intrinsic motivation to use the language more, they need opportunities to get beyond the plateau of “I understand everything and I am getting sick of these silly stories.”
So adding more types of activities into the class period completes two goals: get kids using the language in novel ways and situations and get kids more interested in the class by breaking the routine of the last year and a half.
So far, it has been successful. The kids relish the idea that they get to stand and move around the room and talk with their friends. They are starting to get the look of concentration and deep thought, you know the one I mean, the look a person gets when a word is on the tip of their tongue and they just can’t seem to get it out. I see them working through the phrases and searching for ways to talk around the words they can’t think of. I see them acting out words they can’t think of and then their looks of satisfaction when their partner figures it out. I see smiles because they are being challenged by the very nature of conversation itself. It’s a beautiful sight.
They are, for the most part, not resorting to falling back on their English, which is something that I was sure would happen. There are some who are not taking advantage of the time to use Spanish and are instead using it as time to socialize in English. These are the “cool dudes” who act like they don’t care about grades or school, but they’re middle schoolers…it comes with the territory. I walk around the room and try to keep this to a minimum and I find that when pressed and with supervision and support, even these “cool dudes” are able to get their point across using the TL. For the most part, the students are trying their best to complete the task because they are interested and they are, I think, a little amazed that they can do so much in the language.
The biggest success, I think, comes from something I mentioned above as a benefit of TPRS: They don’t feel pressure. They are able to communicate at their own level and with their friends. Talking with me is paradoxical: they feel pressure to speak correctly because they don’t want to get a bad grade, but at the same time, they are comfortable talking with me in Spanish because I am, for some of them, the only person that they have ever interacted with in Spanish. With peer-peer conversation activities, I am able to get the kids to create a different kind of speaking environment that pushes them outside their comfort zone.