A Reply to Ben Slavic, my hero

A Wild Stallion?Dear Ben,

I feel compelled to speak up here. I don’t really believe that there is a TPRS 1 and a TPRS 2. And the reason I don’t believe that is in your book, TPRS in a Year. I was a “mainstream teacher”, doing what I had been taught was what language teachers should do, but adding in a few “fun” things that seemed to help my students when I discovered TPRS. Seeing students who had actually acquired French because their teacher used the new method and experiencing it in a workshop to learn Swedish convinced me that it was effective. It did not convince me to look up and read Krashen and the theory behind the method. I just wanted to learn how to do it in my French lycée classes. I fell flat on my face mostly, but I had picked up the saying “even bad TPRS is better than no TPRS” and kept trying. As I said recently, it was your book that showed me how to gradually master the techniques that let me do more and more Comprehensible Input in my classes. And Karen Rowan kept talking about Krashen and I was asked to do a workshop in Switzerland and wanted to go there well prepared, so I read up on Krashen and the light dawned.

You say, “One thing I know about language instruction, the true one thing that I really do know, is that most TPRS teachers do not know or appreciate the fact that when the conscious mind is involved in the learning process, nothing happens, there are no gains. ” I completely agree with this: “When the conscious mind is involved in the learning process, nothing happens, there are no gains. ” Reading Krashen I realized that it wasn’t really about whether or not we were doing funny stories, that it was about whether or not my students were engaged in something compelling in the target language, to the point that they were barely aware of the fact that they were getting input in the target language. All the rest is window dressing. You say that most TPRS teachers don’t realize this. Well, I think that the more you use the method and wonder why it works, the closer you get to grasping the truth that Krashen has been presenting to the world all these years. BAsed on my own experience, it takes some of us longer than others to understand, but in time I believe most of us do get there.

When I was working in the lycée my title of “professeur agrégé” meant that no one questioned my methods. And one big difference between France and the States is that the French administration in the lycée has nothing to say about teaching methods. It’s not their job. Inspectors who are former English teachers come from the ministry of education to validate what is happening in your classroom. They don’t come often. No big deal. So I’m not personally familiar with the problems you and other teachers have in the States when faced with hostile colleagues and administrations. Yet I’ve been reading about the same problems every day ever since I began following moreTPRS. There is no way that those of us who believe in TPRS/CI can ignore the reality of the misery that is caused by these conflicts, when teachers who want to use TPRS are hampered and even forbidden to do so by the demands and requirements of “authorities” who just don’t get it.

I don’t think the answer is to draw a line between “pure TPRS” and “diluted TPRS”. I’m still learning how to make my personal use of TPRS purer. At the end of most classes, at the end of every single class, I know that I could have done better. Perhaps your book could have been called “TPRS in Ten Years”. If it’s all right for a teacher to use your book to transition from whatever method she was using to TPRS, isn’t it all right for teachers to gradually introduce as much TPRS as they dare into their classes, testing how much they can do without being condemned by colleagues and their administrations? Carrie and Martina and others are trying to help people do that. Often it’s just a question of using the right vocabulary and I admire people who are able to manipulate the jargon so they can go on doing exactly what they want to do.

I feel very strongly that it’s not helpful to draw lines. I read something written by a community organizer* about working in poor neighborhoods where there were many different ethnic, cultural and social groups basically at war with each other. He said that each group was defensive and eager to attack the others, and the only way he could get them to work together was to point out their common problems and insist that they discuss possible solutions without name calling or belittling the others. ACTFL, Helen Curtain, all language teachers everywhere share a common problem. How can we help our students to acquire a second language? The more we discuss the possible solutions to that problem and the less energy we spend attacking others, the closer we will come to a solution.

Now Ben, I’m sure you’re thinking that TPRS1 is THE solution and I pretty much agree with you. But I’ve raised four kids and have eight grandchildren and one thing I know is that you have to let them find the solution for themselves. You can put it out in plain sight and hope, but they have to see it with their own eyes before they can adopt it. Are “teachers who espouse the new TPRS2 trying hard to bring what they are doing into alignment with ACTFL”? I don’t think so. I think they’re trying hard to show ACTFL that there’s a lot of good stuff here, that it’s not as weird as some people claim, that it can be very effective. If by using the “jargon” they can get a foot in the door, I believe that increasing numbers of teachers will approach TPRS with more open minds. Have you noticed how many “all TPRS” departments there are today? I’m sure that they weren’t converted by teachers shouting “What you’re doing is all wrong!” They were converted by colleagues quietly sharing their students’ progress, saying, “Look at what my students did.” Look at all the Latin teachers on this blog. Where did they come from? No one was attacking them because no one expected them to do anything but pure legacy. Yet, seeing the results Bob Patrick and others were getting, they became curious and tried TPRS and now they’re here in droves. I can’t accept the labels of TPRS1 and TPRS2. TPRS is a broad spectrum and what I was doing when I first started on this journey would be way over there on the far side. Gradually I’ve moved closer to your “Pure Land”, but I don’t reach it every day. Do you?

Your point about output is very pertinent. Students acquire through input, period. Output merely lets us see what has been acquired. Yet, we all ask for output, even if it’s just to say “Yes!” “No!” It’s very hard to stop judging our work by students’ output. One of the big problems is that students themselves focus on their output. I now teach adults who can be very articulate about what they want from a class. They want to be able to produce fluent English. I have advanced learners who can zip through an interesting book in English, who enjoy watching films in OV, but who do not yet feel comfortable in an English conversation. So, again, my lessons with them may be slightly diluted TPRS as I give them opportunities to express themselves, but try to put up railings so that they don’t fall off the deep end. I don’t correct their mistakes but I do try to model what they should be saying. We have a very strong argument in favor of Comprehensible Input. It is the ONLY way languages are acquired. But when students have progressed to the point where they want to talk, some communicative activities can work as training wheels, letting them gain confidence in their ability to output. What I’m trying to say here is that communicative activities and task based learning are ridiculously ineffective when the teacher puts students around a table and steps out of the picture, expecting students to teach themselves, but they can also be useful tools. They are not inherently evil in themselves.

I admire you a great deal, Ben, for your deep insight into how Comprehensible Input works. I love reading your thoughts on how to teach using CI. But you have got the “wild stallion” thing all wrong. Horses are not wild and untameable. Go to the nearest pasture and walk quietly to the center of it and lay down in the grass. Lay quietly and breathe with a relaxed rhythm. The horses will observe you for a long time and gradually meander in your direction. Then one of them will approach and sniff at you. Very gently. Because horses are extremely gentle and they appreciate people who are quiet and kind. The horse will sniff your hair and your hands and your face and if you have carrots in a pocket he will try to get at them. As long as you are perfectly still and peaceful. If you try to grab him he will pull away and gallop off. The wild stallion image comes from horses that have been aggressed and are fighting for their liberty. When I go to the pasture my horse comes to me because she knows I’ve got carrots and apples and sugar lumps in my pocket. And she stands quietly while I put on her bridle because she trusts me. As long as what I ask her to do is reasonable, she will cooperate. When I ask her to do something that goes against her nature, she will become less cooperative, and a rider who doesn’t understand her first signals that she isn’t happy may get a buck or two. Yes, she is spirited, so perhaps your metaphor of TPRS as a spirited horse works. But she is also very intelligent and understanding and flexible and strong. If she’s aggressed, she’ll give you a lot of problems. But if she is approached quietly and you earn her trust, she can be a wonderful teammate. If you present TPRS as a wild stallion, people are going to be afraid of it. (They forget who the carnivores are.) If you show them how gentle and peaceful it is, they may timidly hold out their hands to be sniffed and gradually learn that this beautiful, powerful beast can be their friend.


*He used to work in Chicago but since 2008 has been trying to organize a much larger community.

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