True Confessions

Recently on the moretprs list Lance said: “There ARE other methods of teaching in successful language programs that produce fluent speakers. … To many teachers who have spent years honing their craft and skills, it is very scary to hear about change, especially from someone younger and less-experienced. After all, their students consistently do well and the school community respects them.”

When I read this, I felt that it was addressed to me personally, or rather to a former me, the teacher I was before I discovered TPRS.

I taught English as a foreign language for 38 years before I ever heard of TPRS and Comprehensible Input. I gave grammar explanations and exercises because that was what language teachers did and my students expected it. I tried to make everything as clear as it was to me and my colleagues admired and copied my diagrams and schemas. But that wasn’t what I enjoyed the most and I used communicative activities, theater, films and songs whenever possible, simply because they were fun and my students seemed to come to life when they found something ….. compelling? (We often forget that Krashen’s hypothesis calls for Compelling Comprehensible Input.) As time went on, I did less grammar and more of the other stuff and I experimented with other things whenever possible, knowing there was always room for improvement.

Then, when I should have been thinking about retiring, I saw a second year American high school student carry on a conversation in French with my students who had had seven years of English. That was the first time I ever heard about TPRS. At first it was simple curiosity, thinking it might be a new tool to put in my kit, but after a workshop or two I realized that grammar explanations are not only boring for most students, they are also ineffective. Pat Barret, on the moretprs list serve said it quite eloquently. “Conscious cognitive processes are supposed to allow us to manipulate over 3000 grammar rules while ordering our crepes.”

Some of my former students did become fluent speakers. Some of them kindly attribute it to me. But the more honest ones say that I taught them to love the language, and because of their interest and enjoyment in my classes they went on to acquire fluency in various ways. Krashen has convinced me how important “comprehensible” is, but I always knew that a teacher worth her salary has to be “compelling”. Ask any student about the teachers they remember as having influenced or inspired them, and you’ll hear them say that the teacher made her classes interesting.

There is definitely a Before and After in the way I taught before I discovered TPRS and afterwards. But it was a gradual curve since I was too far away to get any coaching and workshops meant an expensive trip that I couldn’t make every year. Moretprs and Ben Slavic were my lifelines. Yet I still do many of the things I did before with films and songs, etc. I just do them better, because I understand better the process that makes them effective. Comprehensible Input has become the measuring stick for everything I do in class.

There are a lot of good non-TPRS language teachers out there. Some TPRS adepts, who sometimes have the fanatical zeal of fresh converts, tend to consider anyone who isn’t doing TPRS as the “enemy”. I suggest we recognize that they aren’t always teaching grammar and that much of what they do is good practice and effective. They don’t have to throw it all away when they start applying comprehensible input. They can learn to use their some of their old, familiar tools in better ways.

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