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Registration for the Agen Workshop 2018

You can now register for the Agen Workshop 2018. It will be held in the Lycée Saint Caprais, Agen, France. The dates are July 23rd to July 28th. The Early Bird Price is 395 euros until March 1st, 2018. After that, the price will be 475 euros.
In order to register, answer the questions on the form below.
You may pay through Paypal by clicking on the button. If you do not use Paypal you may contact Judy Dubois (judyldubois@aol.com) for information about a bank transfer. Those who live in France may pay by check. We are looking forward to seeing you in July.





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Agreeing to Disagree

Whose side are you on? Targeted 1, Targeted 2 or Non-targeted?

I don’t handle anger well. Some people thrive on it and some people, like my husband, know how to turn it into laughter. I can get upset and dwell on it and feel bad for days. Perhaps it comes from being the oldest of eight children. I was not supposed to get angry; I was supposed to be the peacemaker. Whenever I do get angry, it feels like a defeat, a major failure. Yet, I realize that many people feel that getting things out in the open frees the discussion and clears the air. As I said at the beginning, some people thrive on anger and find it energizing. I’m not one of them.

Recently I was talking to a colleague, a fellow CI teacher, about some of the discussions currently going on in the TPRS/CI world about Story-Listening, about circling, about targeted and non targeted. She said that she was worried because she has been working hard on a presentation to a group of important teacher trainers here in France. She wants to introduce them to the many different approaches used by CI teachers and furnish links to sites where they can learn more about TPR, TPRS, Movie Talk, Story-Listening, Embedded Reading, etc., etc. “If they are curious and look it up and then see all this in-fighting,” she said, “they won’t take it seriously.”

Chris Stoltz and Tina Hargaden have started a Facebook group called CI Fight Club. The starting point was an argument that had been going on elsewhere and had been closed down by moderators in the name of public peace. Chris and Tina wanted to create a space without censorship, where CI people could unload their thoughts and shout at each other if they felt like it.

I was rather surprised to be invited to join, and lurked cautiously at first. Soon some excellent discussions got going that were frank and passionate, and sometimes snarky, but never boring. People were forced to develop their ideas and to defend their ideas and be more explicit. Very often it seems that they agree on the fundamental ingredients and disagree on their dosages. I soon noticed that left to their own devices, the fighters didn’t hit below the belt, as if it was enough to treat them like adults for them to act like the responsible adults they all are.

Some of the discussions are about Story-Listening, a strategy for delivering Compelling Comprehensible Input to students that was developed by Beniko Mason Nanki and presented to teachers from around the world at the Agen Workshop 2016. Kathrin Shechtman has been using it in Germany, Ignacio Almandoz in Spain and Claire Walter has promoted it in the States, and they all are very happy with the results. Beniko has done workshops and demonstrations in the States and in Europe and the Stories First Foundation is promoting collections of stories that teachers can use with the method, along with videos that demonstrate Story-Listening.

Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki is a recognized expert in Comprehensible Input, one of Stephen Krashen’s most faithful disciples. She has an impressive collection of studies that validate his theories. Story-Listening is the method she has adopted to furnish her own students with Compelling Comprehensible Input. She has studies showing that her students progress and score higher on tests than students who have followed traditional methods. I have written a post on this blog describing Story-Listening, a post which Dr. Mason read and approved and which I included in the Agen Workshop Handbook 2017.

Personally, I enjoy telling my students stories. This is something that I have done whenever I felt that my students were able to understand and follow the narrative. I do not use Story-Listening exclusively so I don’t say that I do Story-Listening. But that doesn’t stop me from watching the videos and borrowing things that are helpful. I often use a story to prepare my students for a scene in a film or a text that I want them to read. Or I simply tell them a joke. I’m talking, telling a story, and they are listening and understanding. They are getting compelling comprehensible input. (Jokes are great because you don’t need to do comprehension checks. They either laugh or they don’t.)

Some teachers got excited about Story-Listening, saying that it was easier to do than TPRS story asking. Others felt defensive and began to criticize it. The discussion on the moretprs list got very heated. Unfortunately both sides felt attacked and thus felt justified in attacking the advocates of the other method.

Is there really a conflict here? We are all looking for ways to engage our students with rich Compelling Comprehensible Input. In the past the discussions were between TPRS teachers, 90% of whom lived and taught in the United States. As methods for giving students Compelling Comprehensible Input become better known around the world, the group of teachers becomes more varied as do the situations in which they teach and the students they work with. Any particular method may work very well with a certain teacher in a certain place with a certain public, and may need a not of adapting elsewhere.

Craig Sheehy posted this on the CI Fight Club Facebook Page :
In order for acquisition to occur, the input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.” I have to assume that he is quoting Dr. Stephen Krashen here. (see footnote) Craig goes on to say, “If it is comprehensible and repetitive but not interesting, no one is listening. If it is repetitive and interesting but not comprehensible, then no intake is occurring. And, if it is comprehensible and interesting but not repeated, then the neuroconnections in the brain are not made and reinforced. Targeted or non-targeted, the input must meet these three criteria and if it does then it is good input!”

I don’t think it is possible to argue with Craig. These three requirements must be met for acquisition to occur. “The input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.” Our strategies may vary in that some are more repetitive, some are more interesting and some are more comprehensible, but all three qualities must be present in varying degrees. Teachers may prefer one strategy over another because of their students’ needs, or because of their own personalities, preferences and abilities, yet we can agree that these three requirements must be met.

My own position is not to judge other teachers’ decisions. An experienced teacher knows her students, their culture and their needs and her own personality and possibilities better than anyone else. No one can make her decisions for her. If what she is doing is working, if her students are acquiring language, no one can criticize it. In her classroom, she is the only expert. If it’s not working, she knows it before anyone else. We may have the remedy, but a wise doctor waits for the patient to ask for help. We cannot force teachers to use any method, no matter how effective it may be. And I am sure no one on any of the Facebook groups or anywhere else would want to oblige teachers to use any method, no matter how effective it might be. Too many TPRS teachers have suffered from not being allowed to teach as they wanted to, from being forced to use outdated textbooks and methods. Could we even imagine requiring someone to use Comprehensible Input strategies if that person was not convinced that CI was the only way to acquire language?

I’m sure that the people on the CI Fight Club will find other subjects to debate, and I hope that their discussions will be as passionate and as honest and as uncensored as they have been. Yet, I would like to remind them that there are ways of arguing, that we can disagree with people we respect. I try to follow these rules, borrowed from Megan Phelps-Roper, when I want to present my own point of view.

1) Don’t assume bad intent. The other person sincerely believes they are doing the right thing. (When I hear someone accusing their opponent of ulterior motives, I tend to suspect the accuser of having similar ideas.)

2) Ask questions. We can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is coming from. And it signals to someone that they are being heard. By asking honest questions, we permit them to ask their own questions.

3) Stay calm. If you feel yourself getting angry, take time to pause, breathe and walk away. This is a question of your own sanity and respect for the other person.

4) Make your argument. Don’t assume that your position is so automatically, obviously right that it doesn’t need to be explained. Present your point of view and justify it with facts and logic. Again, this will encourage your opponents to present their own arguments in a calm and rational manner.

I guess what I am trying to say with this very long post is that discussions and disagreements can be healthy. They can force us to examine our positions carefully and honestly. Sometimes they can be eye-openers. As long as we respect the other person enough to listen to them carefully, as we hope they will listen to us, a good argument can sort the chaff from the wheat and strengthen our team. So yes, let’s fight and strengthen our ideas. But don’t forget that we are all on the same team, the team that believes that “in order for acquisition to occur, the input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.”

Well, I feel better now. I’ll continue listening in on CI Fight Club, but if I feel a strong disagreement coming on, I will try to apply these rules to my posts. Does anyone want to fight about them?

PS Stephen very kindly answered my query about what I thought was a quote from him : “I have said “comprehensible and interesting.” never mentioned repetitive. If there is enuf input, and especially if it is narrow, repetition takes care of itself.”

Using Proverbs

Proverbs are an important part of our culture. I was surprised while I was working at the university that sometimes professors would come to me to ask about something that didn’t make sense to them. These were people with degrees in English literature, but a passing reference to “the early bird” or “snatching the brand out of the fire” could trouble them. Since then I have tried to use proverbs so that they would be familiar to my students.

When I was a legacy teacher, this meant a proverb of the day that students copied into a notebook. We would discuss its meaning and they were held accountable for them on quizzes.

Now that I use Comprehensible Input methods, I go about it differently.  I like to make a list of proverbs that I then divide into two parts.  I give one student the list with the beginning of the proverb. Then I mix up the endings and give that list to another student. They can work in pairs, trying to match the sentences that go together. With lower level classes I let them work a while on their own, and then we all work together to find the right phrases.

Doing the exercise involves establishing meaning for new words, but it also requires students to recognize which grammatical structures could go together. I found it very interesting that they were looking for verbs that matched the subjects, etc.  Through acquisition they were sufficiently aware of which structures were possible and which were not, without having had any explicite grammar training. There was a lot of built in repetition as they tried putting various pairs together. It was perhaps better to do it as a whole class activity because I was able to keep the discussion in English.

Teachers could do the matching exercise first, then use the proverbs as passwords. Upper levels could work with longer lists.

Here is an example of proverbs from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanac. I’ve also used quotations from Mark Twain.

 

  1. A countryman between two lawyers …
  2. All would live long …
  3. An investment in knowledge ….
  4. Be slow in choosing a friend,
  5. Early to bed and early to rise…
    1.  but none would be old.
    2. … makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
    3. … always pays the best interest.
    4. ….. is like a fish between two cats.
    5. …. slower in changing.

Why should you go to Agen, France to learn about TPRS?

The Canal at Agen

The Canal at Agen

The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers is five years old. Once again teachers from around the world will meet in Agen and share their ideas and innovations. Last year there were eighty teachers from twenty-three different countries, including Japan and Australia.

To teachers in France it’s amazing to see teachers willing to pay for professional training out of their own pockets, including airline tickets, hotel and restaurant costs. A few participants are being reimbursed by their schools, but most of the people who come to Agen are making a personal sacrifice. Yet it’s a choice they seem to accept with joy, looking forward to a week of growing and sharing with kindred souls.

What is going on in Agen? Who are these people that you see having lunch in the restaurants downtown, carrying on animated conversations, usually in English but sometimes in French or Spanish or German? They are participants in the annual Agen Workshop, here to learn more about TPRS and Comprehensible Input. They are language teachers from around the world that want to learn more about Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and how it can be applied in the classroom.

Krashen’s research on how languages are acquired dates from the 70’s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that classroom teachers found ways to put his ideas into practice. For the first time, thanks to the Internet, thousands of teachers were able to collaborate and share their experiences and feedback. Blaine Ray is honored as the original creator of TPR Storytelling, but the method grew and evolved over the years with input from classroom teachers who were trying it out in the real world. Often in France a method that is the brain child of one influential person is handed down from ministerial authorities and teachers are told to adopt it, or else, and to throw into the trash bin the “exciting new innovation” they had spent the last decade trying to master. Today Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling is truly a child that has been raised by an entire community, a grass roots movement that has spread and conquered more and more schools and districts across the United States. This year, as ACTFL (the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages) named the five regional winners of the “Foreign Language Teacher of the Year” award, it turned out that three of the five were TPRS teachers.

Every year there are two major TPRS conferences in the United States: NTPRS and iFLT. They are usually held in July. European teachers who were interested in the method had to organize a trip to the States to learn more about it and meet some of the amazing teachers who have helped it develop. In 2013 I invited Teri Wiechart, who has been a coach at NTPRS since the early days, to help me organize a workshop for TPRS teachers in Agen, France. Fifteen people came. The following year we had twenty-five and in 2015 year there were fifty people. In 2016 eighty teachers came together in Agen. Something a bit magical happened at these workshops. People from different lands, who taught in schools that were very different, were sharing their ideas and difficulties and experiences and discovering that they had much in common and that Comprehensible Input and TPRS offered many solutions. People left the workshops excited about the method and its possibilities, but also excited about the friends they had made and the doors that had been opened. The TPRS world heard glowing reports about Agen and more and more wanted to come.

Stephen Krashen was the key-note speaker at TESOL’s Colloquium in Paris in 2014. He repeatedly told the 400 assembled teachers that TPRS was the most effective means of teaching a language that he had ever observed. He came to Agen in 2016. He helped convince Beniko Mason Nanki to come. Her research has validated much of the Comprehensible Input hypothesis. This year they are both coming back and will be joined by Blaine Ray, the inventor of the TPRS method. They will be joined by Paul Kirschling, Teacher of the Year for the state of Colorado, who will be demonstrating the TPRS method with a group of French learners from Germany.

So what is different about Agen? Why are so many people coming from so far away to a little town in southwest France? And why do they keep coming back?
One thing that we have tried to do in Agen is to develop the better aspects of the big American conferences. We have coaching with some of the best coaches around, Teri, Laurie, Anny, Carol and Robert. We also have language labs as developed in iFLT, that is real classes of students of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Breton with experienced teachers. Participants can observe the classes for the first part of the morning, then step in and have a turn as Teacher, putting into practice basic TPRS strategies, trying out new techniques. In the final part of the morning, we ask the participants to PQA one of the students in a brief one on one discussion. In this way, we actually engage the participants in the lesson, so they are doing more than just observing a master teacher.

Of course, our secret weapon is Lunch. Agen is at the heart of a region reputed for its good food and there is almost a surplus of excellent but inexpensive restaurants. We encourage participants to choose one and go to lunch together. Instead of grabbing a sandwich and rushing back, we want them to take their time over lunch, to enjoy the food and process what they have seen and learned, sharing their thoughts and exchanging ideas, asking questions and giving themselves time to absorb a very different way of viewing their profession.

In the afternoon coaches will be available for those that want to try out new skills. There are also presentations by well-known figures from the States, but also by some of our local, European talent. As TPRS becomes better known on this side of the pond, we want to encourage those who are using it over here.

Some of our other presenters have never presented in the States and it is important to me to develop the “European” angle. Jayne Cooke, Stephanie Benson and Carol Bausor as well as myself have taught for many years in Europe and understand the conditions here, and how TPRS can be adapted to a public with much different expectations than are found in American schools. Jayne Cooke will speak “In Praise of Difference”, explaining how some students simply see the world in different ways. Stephanie will describe her Tip Tongue project, published by Harraps, putting easy readers in the hands of young students. I will explain Very Narrow Listening, an extremely effective method of helping students to be able to hear input that thus becomes comprehensible. We will also benefit from the talents of Kirstin Plante from the Netherlands who will talk about how the brain processes grammar and how to implement pop-ups.

The afternoon sessions will end at six o’clock, but there will be evening coaching sessions at the Stim’otel.

I’ve tried to give you a peek at our workshop as it is shaping up. It’s still a bit early to give all the names of our presenters and activities, but we hope you can make it either this year or another year. In the meantime, enjoy life and be kind to others. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

How to Get More Grammar with Less

 

Many colleagues who have seen demonstrations of TPRS, Story Listening, Movie Talk and other forms of Comprehensible Input, who have read the research and are convinced of the effectiveness of such methods, nevertheless feel constrained to teach grammar because their school administration and/or department insists on students being able to manipulate grammatical structures. They feel trapped in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma.

I want to tell them my own story, how I became convinced over ten years ago that the best way to teach grammar is not to teach it. You don’t believe me? Now, just imagine that someone told you that you have invisible wings that will enable you to fly. You’ll never know until you jump off the roof, will you?

In 2005 I was teaching English as a Foreign Language in a French lycée. Technically we were not required to teach grammar since there were no longer explicit grammar exercises on the baccalaureate exam, but the textbooks we used contained grammar explanations and exercises and students were graded on how grammatically correct they were, both in written and oral production. So everyone taught grammar, including me. I prided myself on my clear, easily comprehensible explanations, and my colleagues copied my diagrams and mandalas. I was the queen of the passive voice.

That was the year I was given an exceptional class to teach. They were fifteen year olds that had chosen to major in science because they wanted to be doctors or engineers or simply because the “S” track in France is the most elite, “la voie royale”. They were intelligent, bright, well-brought up and almost without exception good students used to getting good grades. It was really a fluke that they happened to all end up in the same class. Of course I enjoyed working with them and we had a lot of fun together. We studied Lord of the Rings and with the Prologue I gave them my Passive Voice explanation and I gave them the diagram and lots of exercises to do. They got it. They did the exercises, we corrected them in class, I gave them a test and they aced it. Passive Voice, check. We moved on to the differences between may have, could have, might have, should have.

However, I was a bit put out when I noticed that a month after having aced the Passive Voice test, my best students were not using it in their written work. Or when someone did try to use it, they got it wrong. I realized that these kids were very good at taking tests, but they were not storing the information they had studied. It was as if the day after the test they erased everything to make room for what they would need for the next test. So I reviewed the passive voice and gave them another test, but again I saw few signs in the following months that it had gone into their long term memory. I could only hope that their future English teachers would review the passive voice again and again, until it finally sank in.

Fast forward a few years. I had discovered TPRS and started trying to use it in my classes. (I liked the results I was seeing, but I had to go to the administration and apologize for the fact that my overall class average had shot up. In France that’s the sign of a teacher who is overly lenient. The administrator I talked to replied that he wasn’t too worried about it since there were plenty of overly strict teachers to make up for my too generous grades.)

Then it was my last year in the lycée before my retirement and for unfathomable reasons I was not given any classes. In theory I was to hang around and wait for someone to be sick so I could replace them. But my colleagues were a very healthy bunch and I didn’t want to die of boredom before I retired. So I asked my colleagues to give me the students that were either failing their classes and/ or that had behavior problems. Thus I found myself with some small groups of students that were almost the exact opposite of my wonderful “S” class of a few years before.

After a semester of doing TPRS, I thought they were ready for a change and we started on Lord of the Rings. We did the Prologue and I circled the information. How many rings were given to the elves? How many rings were given to men? Where was the master ring made? Who was deceived?

I did not explain that we were using the passive voice. I did not show them the diagram of how the passive voice is formed. I did not even talk about the difference between direct objects and subjects. We only talked about the story.

Then we moved on with the film, watching each scene, decoding it, talking about it, doing some VNL. A couple months later we were still studying the film and one day we got into a debate about the ring’s powers, and I wanted to remind them that Sauron was behind the ring. I started to ask “Who was the ring made by?” but the grammar ghost spoke up in my mind, sneering They’ll never understand if you use the passive voice. They haven’t seen it for two months. So I asked “Who made the ring?”  And immediately, spontaneously, one of the boys replied, “The ring was made by Sauron.”

I was floored. This boy was failing English when his teacher sent him to me. But he was using the passive voice spontaneously and correctly and appropriately. Something the excellent students from my “S” class had never quite managed, in spite of the tests on the passive voice that they had aced.

Of course, Stephen Krashen could have told me that my former students had learned about the passive voice and their monitors knew how to use it when they had the time and when they remembered the rule, whereas my current students had acquired the structure. They didn’t know the grammar rules but they were able to spontaneously produce the grammatically correct form.

And I have a confession to make. When, in the fifth grade, I was given English grammar rules to learn and exercises to do, I was a bit too lazy to spend a lot of time on learning rules. I soon realized that I got almost perfect scores on the exercises and tests just by going by what “sounded right”. As a voracious reader, what “sounded right” got me all the way through high school and college. I only learned about English grammar and its labels when we had to diagram sentences. Until then what I had acquired as a reader was all I needed to be an A student.

So, my advice to colleagues who feel torn between teaching with Comprehensible Input and teaching grammar is to trust their wings, the wings of Acquisition, and jump off the roof. If they teach with Comprehensible Input their students will acquire the grammatical structures they need. They can use pop-up grammar to teach the names of the structures their students have acquired, but it’s much easier to label things that have already been acquired than it is to learn formulas that can enable the Monitor to deduce the correct form needed. Teach your students to trust the voice in their heads and to go with what “sounds right”. The more time you spend giving your students compelling comprehensible input, the better their production will be and the better marks they will get on tests designed to test their knowledge of grammatical rules.

It may seem paradoxical, but the less time you spend explaining grammar, the better able your students will be to produce grammatically correct language. When you are teaching explicit grammar, you are either using the native language or being incomprehensible to students who do not find grammar compelling. Instead, use that time to give them compelling comprehensible input, and they will acquire the correct structures and be able to produce them spontaneously. Less is more. You already have the wings. All it takes is courage.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Agen Workshop

Here are some frequently asked questions about the Agen Workshop :

  1. Who is presenting?

Some of our presenters are well known in the States. This year Stephen Krashen, Blaine Ray, Mike Coxon, Laurie Clarcq, Alina Filipescu, Robert Harrell, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Diane Neubauer and Teri Wiechart will be presenting sessions. But we are also counting on local talents such as Charlotte Dinscher, Jayne Cooke, Margarita Perez Garcia and Stephanie Benson. I myself will be presenting sessions on Very Narrow Listening and preparing students for written exams. Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki will present on the Comprehensible Input hypothesis, building a reading program and Story Listening.

  1. What is the program?

Mornings are given over to demonstration classes in French, English, Spanish and Breton. Participants can observe experienced teachers working with real students, but they may also be invited to step in and take over the class for a short time. Every afternoon will begin with a plenary session, followed by workshops on a wide variety of topics. There will be coaching sessions during the afternoons and also during the evenings.

  1. Who will be there?

Our participants come from around the world. Last year twenty-three different countries were represented. The international friendships that develop in Agen are an essential part of our ambition.

  1. Where is the conference?

Agen is in southwest France, between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The conference is held in the Lycée Saint Caprais, a former cloister situated near the train station and in the heart of the downtown area.

  1. Where can I stay?

The Stim’otel is offering a special price to Agen Workshop participants who register directly with them rather than through an online booking service. Appart’City Agen is five minutes from the train station. Ibis Agen is also centrally located. There are also numerous possibilities with Airbnb. The nearest camping ground is “Le Moulin de Mellet” at nine kilometers from Agen.

 

  1. How can I get there?

By car Agen is located on the A62 motorway, halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, about an hour’s drive either way. By TGV (high speed train) it can easily be reached with few stops. If you are flying, you may fly into Paris, Bordeaux or Toulouse and take the train from there. Or you can get a local flight from Orly in Paris to Agen with Hop!

  1. How much does food cost?

Agen is known for its good food and there are numerous restaurants that will serve an excellent meal for prices ranging between 9 euros and 16. If you want to buy your food and do your own cooking, you’ll find the local produce of good quality and reasonably priced. Of course, there are also McDonalds, KFC, Quick and Subway outlets.

The Magic of the Agen Workshop

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Every summer for the last five years something magic has happened in Agen, France. Teachers from around the world have gathered in a friendly little town in southwest France and particpated in what many of them have called a life-changing experience. They come together because they have heard of a different way of teaching languages, a way of creating stories with their students and building a different kind of classroom. They come with open hearts and open minds and they leave with smiles and warm memories and many new friends. That is the magic of Agen.

An important part of the magic spell is the site, our little town built in the middle ages .. for pedestrians. You can walk from one end of the heart of Agen to the other in less than half an hour, but it takes much longer because there are so many quaint and lovely churches, parks, squares, archways, towers, markets, cafés and shops on the way. The Agenais are warm and open-hearted, proud to tell you of their history and about their passion for rugby, for gastronomy and for the local wines. Don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation. No one is too busy to answer your questions. You can stroll along the Garonne or walk on the suspended pedestrian bridge over the river, or jog beside the amazing canal bridge. Take your time. You are in a place where people know how to take their time, where it’s considered polite to give the hostess an extra quarter of an hour before you show up.

Another reason the Agen Workshop is magic is its size. It’s a teachers’ conference that is still small enough to let everyone get to know each other. We want you to make new friends while you process what you have seen and heard and experienced. A time for sharing and exchanging is built into the timetable and a lot of it takes place during lunch or supper in one of the charming little restaurants that serve you a wonderful meal without draining your budget. In the evening coachng sessions you will get expert advice from kind and generous coaches. If you have a problem, our assistants will find a solution, trust us.

Of course, part of the magic is our program of presenters from around the world. This year we are being honored by the presence of Blaine Ray, the man who invented TPRS, Stephen Krashen, Diane Neubauer and Mike Coxon from the United States, Charlotte Dinscher from Germany, Kristin Plane and Iris Maas from the Netherlands, Paul Kirschling TOY from Colorado, Alina Filipescu from Roumania, Cathy Bu from Australia, David Maconaghie from New Zealand, Jayne Cooke from Great Britain, Botond Boros from Hungary, Ignacio Almandoz from Spain and of course, the wonderful Beniko Mason Nanki from Japan. Agen is the truly international conference where people from around the world come together to share their ideas, talk over their difficulties and leave with renewed faith in human nature.

Let’s not forget the magic of coaching, led by Teri Wiechart, Robert Harrell and Carol Hill. This year we are offering a special Coaching for Coaches session on Sunday, July 23rd, so that more teachers will feel empowered to help their colleagues advance on the journey to Comprehensible Input classes.

As in the past, the mornings will be given over to demonstration classes in French, English, Spanish, Mandarin and Breton. Participants can observe experienced teachers working with real students, but they may also be invited to step in and take over the class for a short time. Every afternoon will begin with a plenary session, followed by workshops on a wide variety of topics. There will be coaching sessions during the afternoons and also during the evenings.

Saturday morning Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki will discuss and demonstrate Story Listening. Then we will close with a banquet for everyone at the Stim’otel. It is a joyful, magical  moment, but there are always tears as people say good-bye to old and new friends. That, of course, is the most powerful ingredient in the magic that is Agen: the friendship between those who come from far away with their curiosity, their enthusiasm and their open minds.

I hope to see you in Agen this summer.

Judy Dubois

To Circle or not to Circle

Susan Gross, a TPRS pioneer who taught French in Colorado, developed circling as a way to give her students repetitive comprehensible input while keeping them engaged in a compelling conversation. The idea is simple. The teacher elicits a statement from the class, then asks as many questions as possible about the statement.

Teacher: Stephen likes coffee. Class, does Stephen like coffee?
Class: Yes.
T: Yes, he does. Stephen likes coffee. Does he like coffee or tea?
C: Coffee.
T: Yes, he likes coffee. Does he like tea?
C: No.
T: No, he doesn’t. He doesn’t like tea. He likes coffee. Who likes coffee?
C: Stephen.
T: Right. Stephen likes coffee. What does he like? Etc., etc.

Students answer with single words or short phrases, not with complete sentences. The teacher echoes their answers by repeating the original statement with appropriate intonation.

Circling quickly became an essential part of TPRS and one of the first techniques newcomers learned. We had students count the repetitions and it became a measuring stick. A teacher who got in 70-80 repetitions of a target structure was doing a good job. People frequently posted on the moretprs list asking how many repetitions were needed for a word to be considered acquired. The answer was always “It depends.” Words that have high emotional content or associations, such as profanity, can be acquired after a single repetition. Words that have little meaning, such as many grammatical fillers, may not be acquired even after thousands of repetitions.

Laurie Clarcq was one of the first to warn that circling should never become monotonous or mechanical. She advised to move on as soon as you felt that it was becoming stale. Lately there has been a movement away from circling for exactly the reasons Laurie warned about. Teachers intent on counting reps forgot that input must always be compelling. If your students’ eyes have glazed over, you may as well stop circling.

One of the objections to circling is that it is artificial and doesn’t occur in authentic conversation. Yet we do something very close to circling when we speak with small children. We repeat our questions to be sure they’re understood and we repeat the child’s answers to let it know what we have comprehended. We naturally use circling type questions to shore up the communication, to assure that we are being comprehensible.

Another objection is that teachers circle target structures and there is currently a debate about whether or not we should target at all. Dr. Krashen has made the distinction between what he calls Targetting 1, which is the artificial curriculum proposed in manuels, and Targetting 2, which targets high frequency constructions and vocabulary that are needed for comprehension. For T1 the teacher starts with a word or “chunk” that he wants to teach and looks for a context. For T2 the teacher starts with a text, story or video that students will find interesting and identifies the words and structures that they may not comprehend. She establishes meaning as the items occur and targets them so that students have more than one opportunity to hear them. Circling comes in handy here, but it is a lighter, more natural form of circling than the “70 reps or die” school.

Laurie Clarcq has described light circling as “sanding”, comparing it to a furniture maker sanding wood. If he stays too long in the same place, he’ll make a dent in the surface. So he sands the rough places and moves on and comes back and sands a little more until the entire surface is smooth. This image has stayed with me for years. I now no longer worry about the number of reps I get. I know that high frequency words and structures will pop up again and again. This lets me choose documents that my students will find compelling. I “sand” the words and phrases they need for comprehension, using intonation to make my questions appear natural and genuine. I try to give the impression that I’m merely checking to be sure I understood. Actually, I’m checking to be sure that they understood.

The one situation in which very heavy circling is needed is with true beginners. Such students need to hear a limited number of words over and over again. They also need to be trained to understand questions. Nothing does this as efficiently as circling. Beginner students don’t mind hearing similar questions repeated again and again. They are still striving to understand and feel motivated when they grasp the question and are able to answer correctly with simple, one word answers. Teachers who suggest we should stop circling need to sit in on a lesson in a language they don’t speak. This was my experience in Linda Li’s Mandarin class. I was very grateful that she gave us numerous chances to hear the same question and felt joyful when I could answer it. Comprehension in itself can be motivating.

In conclusion, there is no need to stop circling useful expressions or words that students will hopefully acquire. Acquisition through circling was never as automatic as some believed, but it is still an excellent tool in the hands of skillful teachers.

Story Listening: What is it?

The latest buzz in the TPRS world is Story Listening, a method to “provide massive, meaningful comprehensible input” developed by Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki, a small gentle woman with a lovely smile and something of a malicious twinkle in her eye. Her name was familiar to many people in the TPRS community because of her research on the benefits of self-selected reading in language acquisition, research that is often cited by Dr. Stephen Krashen.

Dr. Mason is an associate professor of English at Shitennoji University in Japan, where she has been using her Story Listening method for many years. She uses simple stories, often folk tales, adapting vocabulary to a level that is comprehensible to her students. She establishes meaning through sketches, translations, synonyms, whatever strategy seems appropriate. After the students have heard the story she may give them a written version to read at home. She may ask them to write a summary of the story in their native language to evaluate to what degree they understood what they heard. As Dr. Mason points out, it “tells the teacher how well she did that day.” This is all the students are asked to do. The teacher’s goal is to furnish her students with a great deal of comprehensible input in a way that is pleasant for both students and teacher while requiring no expensive textbook, no technical support, no computers and very little preparation.
Dr. Mason has used Story Listening as her only curriculum for many years and has seen her students progress from mid-beginning to high intermediate in a few years. Through research studies on the benefits of Story Listening, she estimates that first year students can acquire 6-15 vocabulary words per hour of Story Listening. As their competence improves, their rate of acquisition accelerates.

Story Listening is not TPRS and it owes nothing to the “story asking” technique developed by Blaine Ray. Dr. Mason was not at all familiar with TPRS until Dr. Krashen urged her to learn more about it and she came to the five day TPRS workshop in Agen, France in July 2016. Agen is much smaller than the national conferences in the United States and the schedule allows participants time to get to know each other and share insights and impressions over delicious French meals. Kathrin Shechtman, Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden had the opportunity to meet Dr. Mason and listened to her explain her Story Listening method, which she demonstrated during her plenary session on the last day of the workshop. When Kathrin returned to Germany and Tina returned to the United States, they began trying Story Listening with their own students. They loved the results and, with the excitement and enthusiasm of new converts, made videos and began talking about it at every opportunity. Soon other well-known TPRS teachers were experimenting and some found Story Listening easier and less demanding on both teacher and students than normal TPRS story asking.

Dr. Mason has demonstrated Story Listening on her website : http://beniko-mason.net/frontpage/2016/08/21/wine-well-story.html She has also written a description in an appendix in Ben Slavic’s latest book, A Natural Approach to Stories: A Happier Way to Teach Languages, available on the Teachers’ Discovery website. Those who want to meet her and learn more about Story Listening will find her in June at the Cascadia Conference in Portland, Oregon. https://comprehensiblecascadia.org/2016/10/22/first-blog-post/
She will be back in Agen this summer for the Agen Workshop, July 24th- 29th. http://tprs-witch.com/agen-workshop-2017-registration-is-now-open/
She will then visit Kathrin in Ehrlangen, Germany, where a one day workshop on Story Listening will be held. http://www.welovedeutsch.com/story-listening

For those who wish to try Story Listening, Dr. Mason advises them to begin with a short version of a well-known folk tale that will last no longer than fifteen minutes. Once students are used to the technique, the stories can be longer. If the story is already familiar to students they will have fewer difficulties understanding it. Folk tales, almost by definition, are compelling even when they are well-known and have been heard many times before. Support is given as needed in the form of drawings, pictures, realia, synonyms, words written on the board and translations in order to make the story comprehensible. Later, as students adapt to the new method, they will need less and less support as they become absorbed in the stories. If they become restless and inattentive, it is probably caused by the teacher’s failure to be comprehensible, so she needs to backtrack to clarify what they have not understood. After the session, the teacher can give the students a written version of the story to read. There are several videos on the CI Liftoff Facebook page showing teachers doing Story Listening that can serve as models.

What objections have been raised to Story Listening? I am addressing this question because of a rather heated debate on the moretprs list serve between proponents of Story Listening and the defenders of standard TPRS. One of the objections to Story Listening was about whether or not SL teachers checked for comprehensibility. TPRS teachers are trained to ask students, “What did I just say?” and verify frequently that learners are comprehending the input they are receiving. Students are asked to signal when they don’t understand and to show with their fingers how much they have understood. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to be so blatant about checking for comprehension. In any communicative situation, listeners have many ways of signaling that they don’t understand whenever the speaker is not being comprehensible. Eye contact, body language and interest are adequate signs of comprehension when the teacher is tuned in to them. Asking students to write a summary in their native language shows the teacher exactly how effective she has been and permits her to readjust the input for the next session if necessary. It was established in the discussion that Story Listening is first and foremost COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT, as one would expect from Dr. Mason, an ardent disciple of Dr. Krashen. Susie Gross has showed us that there is more than one way to peel a banana, and teachers may check for comprehension in other ways than “What did I just say?”

I would also like to point out that as TPRS spreads beyond the borders of the USA, it will encounter cultural differences in students. When I first saw a demonstration of TPRS (Thank you, Jeff Moore) my reaction was “This will never work with French lycée students.” It did, but it took some adaptation. Story listening may be better adapted to some cultures in which students are not used to being as active as American students yearn to be.

Another criticism of Story Listening was the lack of targeting. Many teachers are required by their schools to have goals, specific vocabulary and grammatical structures that students are supposed to acquire. TPRS teachers often debate how many targets to introduce in a lesson and many consider targeting as an essential part of TPRS, although Blaine Ray does not mention targets in his definition of the method. Dr. Krashen, on the other hand, has often eschewed targeting specific vocabulary or grammatical structures, pointing out that by definition high frequency items will occur naturally in input and will be acquired when the learner is ready. Dr. Terry Waltz, who favors targeting, affirms that classrooms are an artificial environment with severe time constraints, so teachers must optimize the immersion experience by making sure that essential structures and vocabulary are acquired, which necessitates massive repetitions of targeted words and structures.

Dr. Krashen weighed in on the moretprs discussion by suggesting that we distinguish between what he calls T1, Targeting One, T2, Targeting Two, and Non-targeting. The article entitled Three Options: Non-targeted input, and two kinds of targeted input can be found on his website. I found this distinction extremely helpful as a guide in my teaching practice and I would like to include it here.

We can distinguish two kinds of targeting: The first is consistent with the “skill-building” view of language development and the second is consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis.
Targeting 1 (T1):
1. The goal is full mastery of the rule or vocabulary in a short time, so complete that it can be easily retrieved and used in production.
2. The source of the items to be targeted is external, from a syllabus made by others (not the teacher). The teacher’s job when doing T1 is to find a story or activity that will provide extra exposure to and use of the target items. Thus, Targeting 1 is a way of “contextualizing” grammar or vocabulary.
3. T1 consists of “practice” in using the target items. “Practice” generally consists of skill-building, first consciously learning the new items, and then “automatizing” them by using them in output, and getting corrected to fine-tune conscious knowledge of the rule or meaning of the word. “Automatizing” means converting explicit, or consciously learned competence into implicit, or acquired competence. It has been argued that T1 does not result in the automatization or acquisition of language (Krashen, 1982, VanPatten, 2016). The best we can hope for with T1 is highly monitored performance.

Targeting 2 (T2):
1. Unlike T1, the goal of T2 is comprehension of the story or activity, not full masteryof the targeted item in a short time. It can be done in a variety of ways, e.g. via visual content (e.g. pictures), translation.
3. The source of the items to be targeted is internal; e.g. the story.
4. This kind of targeting generally results in partial acquisition, enough to understand the text. Full acquisition of the targeted item develops gradually, when the item appears in the input again and again, in other stories or activities, assuming that the targeted item is at the students’ i+1.

In conclusion Dr. Krashen says that his previous arguments against targeting are arguments against Targeting 1 and not against Targeting 2. Frankly it was a relief to know that Dr. Krashen does not condemn all forms of targeting. As an independent tutor, I do not have to follow any curriculum, but experience has taught me that certain apparently simple structures are extremely difficult for my francophone students. Once they are acquired, the students are able to progress much more rapidly and easily, so when those structures come up, I will circle them and try to give them a bit of a shine in order to reinforce them without taking away from our focus on the compelling message. I don’t T1 target them, but when they come up, which they often do, I circle or “sand” them as Laurie Clarcq describes light circling. I think of it as making them shine a bit, so that students’ minds are more likely to notice them and get a bit closer to acquiring them.

Personally, in my humble opinion, the entire debate about targeting is about whether the glass is half full or half empty. Beginners need some targeting simply because it’s easier to learn to swim in a small pool than in the middle of the ocean. Dr. Krashen often cites Linda Li as an admirable example of a TPRS teacher. Twice I have been able to observe her Mandarin classes for beginners such as myself and she made no mystery about the words that she was targeting. They were posted before she began the lesson and the repetitions were massive. Her magic is that everything she said was interesting and compelling and she was able to make us laugh as she repeated a word for the 78th time. TPRS is a joy to watch when it is practiced by skilled teachers such as Blaine Ray, Linda Li, Jason Fritz, Karen Rowan, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Ben Slavic and Susie Gross. Some targeting of basic forms, such as what Terry Waltz calls the super seven verbs, seems necessary with beginners.

But once the foundation has been laid, I tend to agree with Dr. Krashen that by insisting on our targets we may forget that essential element, the message. Our primary goal is to communicate a compelling message. A teacher who forgets the message because their lesson is focused on teaching vocabulary and grammatical structures is like a hostess who stacks so many chairs in the room that there is no space left for the guests. I don’t really think it is a question of targeting or non-targeting. If we are focused on the message, on a compelling message that we want to make comprehensible to our learners, we will easily identify a few essential words that our students might not be familiar with. We can then choose to use a synonym or we can decide to establish meaning and use light circling to favor acquisition of a useful new expression. There is no need for massive repetitions if the word is truly high frequency. Our students will naturally hear it again and again until it has been acquired. Brain science seems to indicate that it is more effective to hear a word repeated a few times at varying intervals than to hear it repeated seventy times on one single occasion. There is no need for acrimonious debates about whether or not to target, if we accept that each teacher knows her own students best and is best qualified to judge how much targeting would be helpful to them. I would add the humbling thought that when we target “+1”, some of our more autonomous students may have already acquired it and others may not be ready for it, so our targeted structure will not necessarily be acquired by all. Targeting may favor but does not guarantee acquisition.

I think Dr. Krashen’s distinction between T1 and T2 is important. It is the difference between “I want to teach x, where is a story I can use?” and trusting that x, if it is truly high frequency, will be there waiting for us when we find an interesting and compelling story for our students. When I decided to use entire films with my students, I supposed that the words they really needed would come up. To my surprise some of the expressions which came up frequently were not popular in the lower level grammar books. I realized that there were grammatical structures that were extremely high frequency which were introduced quite late in the third or fourth year grammar books. By deciding to let the film decide which structures to target, I learned that the typical textbook progression has it all wrong, something Dr. Krashen has been telling us for many years.

For the same reason Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki does not encourage targeting, yet there is nothing in the Story Listening method itself which would not allow a teacher to spotlight or target certain useful expressions. There is a lot of built-in repetition in folk tales which would make some circling to appear quite natural.

During the discussion on the moretprs list, some said that since Story Listening was not TPRS, there was no reason to be discussing it on the forum. From its creation the moretprs list has been a site where teachers interested in Comprehensible Input could exchange their experiences, ask for advice and give feedback on innovations that they had tried. This has allowed the TPRS community to develop and improve the method imagined by Blaine Ray and it continues to grow in effectiveness through these exchanges. Movie Talk is not TPRS either, but is used by many TPRS teachers and no one has ever suggested that it should not be discussed on the list serve. There are at least four methods, TPR, Movie Talk, TPRS and Story Listening, that were inspired by Dr. Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis. They share the common goal of immersing students in CI in order to permit acquisition. The three steps of TPRS, as defined by Blaine Ray, are establishing meaning, creating a story and reading. The same steps are present in Story Listening, the difference being that the students are not asked to participate in the creation of the story. Instead the teacher presents a story either written by a talented professional or passed on by generations of story tellers, which is kind of a guaranteed home run story. In Movie Talk the teacher describes and discusses a video that she shows to the students. In Story Listening she creates the video in their minds without the help of an animated image. A TPRS teacher may very well choose to use either Movie Talk, TPR or Story Listening from time to time, for variety if for no other reason. Does that mean that she is no longer a TPRS teacher? Of course not.

Personally, I use Blaine Ray’s story-asking method only occasionally, because of the type of students I work with. Most of them are adults and quite a few are retired. None of them are true beginners. They all find English language films compelling, so I work to make them comprehensible. If I succeed my students will become autonomous learners. I use Movie Talk, Very Narrow Listening and reading subtitles in English to achieve my goals. I see Story Listening as a helpful addition to my arsenal, allowing me to introduce a scene before I show it to my students. I can also use it with weaker students who are not yet ready to attempt a film in the original version. I am grateful to Beniko Mason Nanki for presenting teachers around the world with an elegant and easy to use strategy that allows us to immerse our students in compelling comprehensible input. Thank you, gracious lady. Whether or not we want to use Story Listening every day is up to each teacher to decide for herself.

*Mason, B., Vanata, M., Jander, K., Borsch, R., & Krashen, S. (2009) The effects and efficiency of hearing stories on vocabulary acquisition by students of German as a second foreign language in Japan. Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching, 5(1) 1-14

Dr. Krashen at Agen

When Dr. Stephen Krashen came to Agen, he was filmed by Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki, the world’s most charming and erudite cameraman. Here is the link to her blog where you can see the video of his talk on Sustained Silent Reading. http://beniko-mason.net/conference/frontpage/2016/06/16/conference.html