About Noise and Circling

Some people on the moretprs list seem to have misunderstood a comment that was made about Tamara Galvan. I wrote this to explain how I perceived her classes.

Tamara Galvan teaches English as a foreign language in France. She is an amazing teacher. Parents fight to get their kids into her classes because they come out transformed. The kid who hated English suddenly wants to read books in English and continue his studies in an American university. What happens? They ACQUIRE the language instead of memorizing irregular verbs. She is also that rare miracle, someone who learned all they could about TPRS via this list and books and began applying it in their classes. What Ignacio was describing was not Story Listening, it was a very “traditional” Blaine Ray style lesson, complete with props and crazy ideas from the students; Tamara might be surprised to learn that Ignacio didn’t think she was circling. She just does it so beautifully that it doesn’t feel like circling. It feels like she’s having a genuine conversation with her students.

Also, she was not working with complete beginners, wha are rare in France where kids begin English very early, but with teachers that are often not proficient enough to flood their students with CI. Complete beginners may need the more mechanical form of circling. (I’ve used it with primary students and still had fun. They seem to accept it as part of the game.) The kids Ignacio saw with Tamara had had three or four very boring years of lots of incomprehensible input in school. But even the students of the most traditional legacy teachers manage to acquire bits and pieces of the language. The reason that Tamara was so successful, the reason her students had such big smiles, was that she made it both Compelling and Comprehensible from day one. She was with those kids, reading their eyes, checking for comprehension without seeming to, reading them just as we all do in any conversation when you need to know that the person you are talking to understands what you are saying. She taught the kids to signal when they didn’t understand and she questioned them to be sure they understood. Please do not believe that Tamara was doing anything but giving her students lots of Comprehensible Input with very minimal noise.

The obvious form of circling where one statement generates a dozen questions and then we make another statement and ask another dozen questions can become mechanical and it becomes deadly when it becomes mechanical. I can understand the reaction of the student who said, “But you already asked that question.” I still circle, even with advanced students, but only when a tricky structure comes up and I want to be sure they are hearing it. I may ask only one or two questions, as if I’m checking to be sure I’ve understood. then I use the same structure in a different way and again ask a question or two. Laurie Clarcq compares it to sanding wood. If you stay in the same place too long, you’ll make a dent in the surface. So you sand a bit here, a bit there, but eventually cover all the table top.

When students are very weak and unsure of themselves and intimidated by the idea of being judged, they tolerate very little noise. Some seem to go catanic as soon as an unknown word pops up. Such students need input to be 100% transparent. But as they ACQUIRE language they also acquire confidence and become more tolerant of noise. If they find the input they are receiving compelling, they will tolerate even more noise, which makes them more able to navigate and communicate in the real world, where it’s impossible to eliminate all noise. I think of noise as something like bacteria. Too much of it can be fatal, but children who are raised in a sterile environment won’t be able to survive in the real world.

There are 5 comments

  1. Martina

    Thank you for writing this out, Judy! The sanding analogy from Laurie and this quote, in particular, stand out to me as helpful in wrapping our minds about these two concepts (noise and circling) and their role in a language classroom: ” I think of noise as something like bacteria. Too much of it can be fatal, but children who are raised in a sterile environment won’t be able to survive in the real world.”

  2. Terry Waltz, Ph.D.

    I think people teaching languages with a high number of cognates and/or loanwords, and a transparent writing system, tend to feel that students can handle far more noise than those who teach languages in which those things are not the case. The same seems to be the case for targeting of input.

    No matter what kind of language is being taught, though, proper circling is not predictible or boring.

  3. Judith Dubois

    I’ve noticed that even advanced students can be thrown for a loop by what seems a very obvious cognate, words that are spelled the same in both languages.

    I agree. Good circling should never be boring or predictable.

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