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 : 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.
She will be back in Agen this summer for the Agen Workshop, July 24th- 29th.
She will then visit Kathrin in Ehrlangen, Germany, where a one day workshop on Story Listening will be held.

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.

Ben Slavic

I have often said that Ben Slavic is the one that made TPRS comprehensible to me. I had read the Green Bible, I had attended a workshop by Janet Holter Kittok in St. Louis and I was convinced that the method was efficient, that it worked. What I did not understand was how I could do it. Then I read some of Ben’s posts on the moretprs list and I ordered his books.

I began with TPRS In A Year and immediately began applying his advice, learning the strategies as he suggested, a week at a time. Trying things out, not feeling that I had to get it all at once, accepting that teaching this way was a skill that I could eventually master. Little by little, things began to click and I could see a difference in my students’ acquisition. For his help in getting my foot in the stirrup, I will be eternally grateful. And I still recommend TPRS In A Year for those who want to try TPRS but are not sure where or how to start. PQA In A Wink helped me get into asking my students questions about themselves, but it took me longer to assimilate, perhaps because I was still working on basic skills.

When Ben created his private forum, I joined and have never regretted being part of it. I have often told people that it is the best and cheapest professional development to be found. Not only are there fascinating discussions going on all the time, but I have met so many wonderful people through it, some of them in Europe. For some reason Ben’s forum feels different than the moretprs list, more private, safer, more congenial. I look forward to reading it every day. And I learn something almost every day. One day I read a description of Jason Fritz doing Reader’s Theater and began trying it. Now I do it all the time. Many of the people on the list became familiar names to me, like friends from far away that I had never met. Robert Harrell, Carol Hill, Laurie Clarcq, Martin Anders, Jason Bond and Charlotte Dinscher have become good friends and will all be in Agen this summer.

When I tried to organize the first Agen Workshop in 2013, Ben promoted it and most of the people who came that year had learned about it on his blog.

In 2014 I finally met Ben face to face at the IFLT conference in Denver. I was looking forward to meeting him, but didn’t expect to have someone shout out “The Queen of France!!” from the other end of the hall and bow down like a true French courtier. For some reason, when I remember the scene, he’s waving an enormous Trois Musketeers hat with a gorgeous white plume. I’m sure he didn’t have one, but that’s how I remember him. I am basically, fundamentally a very shy person and was horribly embarrassed. All I could say was, “Get up. Please, get up.” He seems to have forgotten that the last Queen of France had her head chopped off. Later I hoped to get the chance to listen to one of his enchanting monologues where he would discuss TPRS and students and comprehensible input and I would gain wonderful insights. But a lot of other people had the same idea and every time I saw Ben he was surrounded by admirers and I felt intimidated. I mean, I couldn’t just walk up to him and demand, “Say something inspiring!”

In Chicago I attended one of his “War Room” sessions. He was coaching people who were trying out their TPRS skills with a friendly audience. It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of colleagues and pretend to teach. All coaches know that it’s a brave thing to do and that their interventions should be tactful, delicate and caring. (Coaching doesn’t work for me, personally, because I teach English and it’s hard for my “pretend students” to pretend that they don’t understand their native language.) Anyway, I can only say that what I saw that night in the War Room was a tactful, delicate and caring Ben Slavic.

Last year I was able to invite Ben to come to Agen and he accepted. So Ben came and did his War Room coaching every night. Also, being very generous with his time and energy, he presented during the afternoons, talking about One Word Images and the Invisibles. I was teaching every morning and presenting every afternoon and running a conference all the rest of the time, so I didn’t have many chances to see Ben in the evenings, but I heard very positive things about the War Room sessions. Many came away inspired to try something new.

Ben was staying in the same hotel with Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki, Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tina Hargaden. They often had breakfast together and Ben and Tina learned about Beniko’s technique of Story Listening. The rest is history and I encourage everyone to try this way of giving students compelling comprehensible input. Dr. Nanki is publishing a book about it and Ben and Tina are putting out a revised version of his Invisibles with a forward by Dr. Nanki.

When I think of Ben, the word that comes to mind is passionate. He is passionate about his craft, passionate about wanting to help others find their way. He has the courage to go off the beaten path, the courage to try new methods and the courage to speak his mind. I don’t always agree with him, but I have discovered that he also has the courage to admit his mistakes. But actually, the Ben I know best is not the Ben I met briefly in Denver and Chicago and Agen. The Ben I know best is the writer, the writer that I’ve been following for many years now. He has a gift for words and many of his posts are pure poetry and I can’t help but admire the way he says it. I hope to see him back in Agen one of these days, and that this time we’ll find time to have a good meal and a long discussion about teaching students with comprehensible input, something we are both passionate about.

What Happens When Teachers Use Comprehensible Input

Bob Patrick is a Latin teacher. Bob Patrick teaches with Comprehensible Input. He was hired for a part time position in a public high school with over 3000 students in Atlanta, Georgia. Bob was soon selected as Teacher of the Year in the Southeast and was a hot contender for the national title. His program grew at first because he encouraged the counselors to send him the students no one else wanted and then continued to grow because the kids loved his classes. He recently posted this announcement. Draw your own conclusions.

We are a progressive Latin team teaching collaboratively in a large high
school program striving to build and maintain an inclusive Latin program.

We are looking to add a fifth full time Latin teacher to our team. This
should be someone who is either a) an experienced Comprehensible Input/TPRS
user or b) is willing to adopt the practices of CI with a great deal of
support, mentoring and training from our Latin team. We are exclusively CI
and task oriented. No one on our team typically teaches more than two preps.

We are one of the largest elective Latin programs in a public secondary
school in the nation.

We are an untextbook-Latin program sourcing the content from multiple ages
as well as modern novellas.

We teach Latin to grades 9-12 with classes in levels 1-4 and also offer AP

We are an exclusively CI and task oriented program.

We use Standards based assessments.

We teach in a large (3000+) ethnically diverse school in metro Atlanta
teaching over 20% of our student body.

Our Latin program mirrors the diversity of the school.

We have a very high student success rate and a retention rate of 50-60%
over four years.

We have built a reputation for working with all kinds of learners including
those with emotional and learning disabilities of which we are proud.

We have over 180 students in our chapter of JCL.

Georgia public schools in general pay teachers at the national average and
higher than most in the southern region while costs of living in GA remain
relatively low.

Our team members include: Rachel Ash, Miriam Patrick, Bob Patrick, and
Keith Toda

Interested persons should send letter of interest and resume to Bob
Patrick, Dept. Chair:

Robert Patrick, M.Div, PhD
Metro-Atlanta, GA

Coaching for Coaches at the Agen Workshop 2017

Once you have found your sea legs in TPRS/TCI, you will want to share the joy and help other teachers start on their own journey. Coaching for Coaches is a special all day session for teachers who feel fairly confident about their own skills and want to help others to implement Comprehensible Input in their classrooms. And we all know that the best way to master a skill is to try to teach it to others.

Coaching for Coaches in Agen will be held Sunday, July 23rd, at the Centre Descartes. Teri Wiechart, Robert Harrell, Carol Hill, Judy Dubois, Laurie Clarcq, Kirstin Plante and Iris Maas will work with teachers who want to coach other teachers in the skills that make Comprehensible Input work in the classroom.
The Coaching for Coaches session costs 100 euros. Register here.
Please select a valid form

You may pay by Paypal or a bank transfer. If you have a French bank account you may pay by check.

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.

Laurie Clarcq, my mentor

She always signs her posts, love, Laurie. She was already a frequent participant in the discussions on the moretprs list serve when I began following it in 2006. She helped me understand how TPRS fit into a classroom, but she also helped me understand that the most important thing in the room was not the method, not the teacher, not the equipment, but the students. Unless the teacher was focused on them and their needs, there would be no miracle. Unless there was love and respect in the classroom, there would be no miracle. Perhaps love and respect were the miracle.

There are a lot of strong personalities on the moretprs list and strong personalities have strong convictions. Sometimes sparks fly and tempers heat up. Invariably, when that happens Laurie will post something that is both kind and open-minded. She has a special gift for seeing both sides, for knowing where people are coming from and understanding their pain. Again and again I admired her gentle wisdom and her skill at reconciliation and wished I could be more like her.

She has contributed to the TPRS movement in many ways. As a coach at NTPRS and IFLTC she has helped countless teachers gain confidence in their skills. After a comment she made on Ben Slavic’s blog, the author of TPRS Q&A, called her a TPRS goddess. With Michelle Whaley she helped make Embedded Reading and Movie Talk indispensable tools in the TPRS toolkit. On her blog, Hearts for Teaching at she has generously shared hard-earned insights gleaned from her long experience in the classroom. Reading her posts, I particularly appreciate her honesty. She doesn’t pretend to be a super hero teacher. She’s open about her doubts and struggles.

Currently, having retired from the school in New York where she taught many years, where she was well-known and respected by her students, she has accepted a new job in a new school in California. It takes years for a teacher to build up a reputation as “a good teacher” so that students enter her classroom knowing they are in the hands of someone who’s competent, someone that their friends and older brothers and sisters respected. New teachers have to start from scratch and prove themselves every single day. That is the challenge that Laurie has courageously accepted. On her blog she is disarmingly frank about her trials and setbacks, her little steps forward and minor victories.

I was delighted when Laurie told me that she was coming to Agen in 2016. I had met her face to face in 2014, but in all the rush and excitement of the big conferences, we didn’t manage to really get to know each other. Thank heavens, she came to Agen a day early, so I had some time to spend with her and immediately it felt like I was talking to an old high school friend, someone who knew me from way back when. We were on the same wave length on so many things that we were often finishing each other’s sentences. She was a great presenter and a precious addition to our coaching team. I hope she’ll be able to come to Agen again and again.
Love, Judy