Recently a teacher posted on the TPRS Witch Facebook page about what I believe is a common problem: “My students continue to struggle because I am required to ask too much from them too soon. Is there any way to combat this? I feel like a failure on most days but when I reflect it’s the overall expectation that is just unrealistic.” Few teachers can afford to ignore Required Curriculum. I wanted to respond, but thought it deserved more than a short comment.
For generations textbooks have been slicing language up into pieces that students were expected to learn in a very logical and carefully calculated order. The experts didn’t always agree on which tense to start with, Simple Present or Present Continuous, but they all agreed that you start with the “easy”, basic fundamentals and gradually build on them. They grouped vocabulary into themes. We taught all the family words, then the house words, later we learned to talk about the weather, the seasons and sports and going through customs. Whether the curriculum was based on grammar or communicative activities or whatever, the basic principle was that students learned bit by bit, the grammar rules and vocabulary lists, until four or five years later when they could actually carry on a conversation. This approach has always reminded me of Johnny Cash’s song, One Piece at a Time, and gives similar results. The students, the few who persevere, have a lot of bits and pieces but they don’t necessarily fit together very well.
What’s wrong with bits and pieces? What’s wrong with focusing on the simple fundamentals first?
I think the teacher who posted the comment accurately identified the real problem. “The overall expectation is just unrealistic.” For generations teachers have been blaming the students, saying that they were lazy and unmotivated. Otherwise, how could their disappointing results be justified? I had a wake-up call the year I was given a truly exceptional class to teach. The students were extremely intelligent, hard-working and highly motivated. I got along well with them and they did everything I asked and passed all their exams with flying colors. But I couldn’t help but notice that the lessons they had diligently learned for my tests were quickly forgotten. When I heard of Krashen’s distinction between learning and acquisition, a light came on. Some of the students went on to actually acquire the English language, but if I had anything to do with that it was because they had enjoyed my classes and felt more comfortable listening to films in English and engaging with English speakers.
Expecting students to memorize vocabulary lists and grammar rules and then apply them in order to be able to produce language is totally unrealistic, yet it is what the textbooks encourage, however modern, flexible and “communicative” they try to appear. Teachers who have grasped the importance of maximizing Comprehensible Input and teaching language in context rather than “a piece at a time” realize how impossible the textbook expectations are for acquisition. “Is there any way to combat this?”
TPRS teachers have been struggling with this dilemma for decades now, and some have come up with a solution that seems to work, or at least appease their non-TPRS colleagues. Since, basically those who follow the textbook or the required curriculum are asking their students to memorize vocabulary, the TPRS teachers give them the same lists of vocabulary to learn … at home. In class they use their limited time to furnish their students with comprehensible input. They may or may not target certain high frequency words or structures, but they don’t waste class time on low frequency vocabulary. That goes on the lists and there’s a quiz to validate what the students have learned. Just as in the other classes, students who want the grade will learn the words and students who don’t care won’t. And just as in the other classes, the students who learned the lists will immediately forget them. In your class students are actually acquiring language and high frequency structures that will enable them to use the words they need when they need them.
My advice if you have a required curriculum is to look at it carefully and decide what is essential and high frequency and thus automatically present in your comprehensible input lessons, and what is not. Don’t sweat the grammar, because you are sheltering vocabulary, not grammar, so you’ll be giving your students a fully operating grammar system from day one. It’s the difference between buying a basic car with a operating motor already installed and sneaking parts out of the factory “one piece at a time.” Take all the remaining fluff, make a list and divide by the number of “vocabulary quizzes” you want to give. Tell your students to learn the lists for extra credit. You could even challenge them to write stories using as many of the words as possible. In all possibility, your students will know the low frequency vocabulary on the lists as well (or as poorly) as your colleagues’ students. But your students will have acquired a machine that runs and your colleagues’ students will have all the parts and not know how to put them together.