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.

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