French in Normandy

I’m just back from a short stay in Normandy where I gave a workshop on Comprehensible Input and TPRS. I discovered a lovely city, Rouen, and a dynamic and impressive school called French in Normandy.

I spent the first day sitting in on classes and meeting Eleri Maitland, the director. She and her husband, Tom, moved to France from Wales and founded French in Normandy in 1992. They have built it into an award-winning enterprise that draws students from around the world. When she invited me to come and give a workshop, I imagined that her students were mostly British ex-pats who had chosen to retire in the region and wanted to improve their French. The reality was quite different. I sat in on classes with students of all ages from Korea, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland and Holland. When I asked someone how they managed to recruit from so many different countries, I was told, “Eleri is our secret weapon. She goes to conferences around the world and brings us the students.”

I couldn’t help but think that for a teacher, French in Normandy is almost a dream school. The classes are small, limited to ten maximum, the rooms are attractive, bright, modern, well equipped and comfortable. There is a good atmosphere of trust and respect between the teachers and the staff, some of whom are also teaching classes.

The teachers that I observed were young, competent, very professional and dynamic. It was obvious that they enjoy their work and get along well with their students. The students were relaxed but serious about wanting to learn to speak French. The classes were entirely in French, since there was no common language. All the students had notebooks which stated their explicit goals for the week and the activities that would enable them to attain their goals.

In the evening I had a brief meeting with the teachers to introduce myself and TPRS. They had never heard of it before, so I gave them a brief history of the method.

The following day I gave a demonstration lesson in English, so they could see what TPRS looks like, before I presented them with a wall of posters presenting the different techniques that TPRS teachers use. I explained Circling, Teach to the Eyes, PQA, Three Steps, Pop-ups, etc. In the afternoon they chose structures to work on and developed a lesson. Then they presented the lesson to their peers and I coached. Most of them seemed to have grasped the principles I was trying to get across and did an excellent job for a first attempt. I was delighted to see that they were open to innovation and interested in trying it out.

Once you begin investigating TPRS, you realize that it is a vast field and involves rethinking almost everything you do in the classroom. A single day seems like far too short a time to communicate all the aspects and strategies involved in giving students as much comprehensible input as possible. I felt torn between wanting to give them a good idea of all the possibilities and not wanting to overwhelm them. In the documentation I included lots of links to sites on the web, videos and forums where they can find more information and ask questions as they explore the possibilities of stories and comprehensible input. It’s a long, in some ways never-ending journey, but well worth the effort when you observe the progress students are able to make.

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