Back to Basics

Yesterday I went to a workshop at a nearby school organized and hosted by a friend of mine. It was a one-day workshop about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). The presenters were Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. I decided to attend the workshop for three reasons. First of all, a group of my friends were going to be there and I wanted to see them. Second, my district paid for it (I am still getting used to working for a district that believes in and finances professional development). And third, it is not very often that we get professional development on anything that has to do with comprehensible input (CI) in New England, so I figured I better take advantage of it.

To be honest though, I had a decent reason for being hesitant about attending this conference, and that reason is that this was a beginner’s workshop. After so many years of teaching with CI, I don’t consider myself to be a beginner anymore, so I wondered if I would get anything out of this workshop at all. I’m not trying to say that I am an expert in all things TPRS, but I have attended three previous multi-day TPRS workshops, so I wasn’t sure that I would learn anything new from this one.

But I am happy to report that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out that TPRS has changed and evolved in the past few years, and I walked out with some valuable information. Here are my takeaways from yesterday.

1. Mike and Craig’s point system is a great classroom management tool. When Mike and Craig were classroom teachers, they gave their students jobs. One student was the Timekeeper. The Timekeeper is a student who has to time the class to see if they can stay completely in the target language (TL) for eight minutes without stopping. During that time, if students blurt things out in English or have side conversations, the teacher asks the timekeeper to reset the timer and the class tries again. If the teacher gets through the entire eight minutes, the class gets a point. After the class has gotten to an arbitrary number of points (I have no idea how many. That would depend on how often your class meets. I am shooting for 30-40 points, but that is because I see my classes either two or three times a week. I would require more points if I had classes five days a week), the class gets rewarded (Mike bought pizza for his classes, but he taught high school kids, who are hard to please. Elementary and middle school kids would be happy with a lot less, like candy or a special day of games or Señor Wooly videos).

I can see how the promise of a party/candy/pizza/donuts can be a wonderful motivator for students of any age, as long as it’s the right prize. I find this point system to be similar to Annabelle Allen’s point system that she writes about in her blog, but I find this one to be a bit simpler to wrap my head around. I plan to implement this system with my fifth grade class, who are great, easily excited, and eager to please, and will expand to my other classes if it goes well.

2. I have not been using Movie Talks to their full advantage. I have posted about Movie Talks here and here and felt that I had been somewhat successful using them in class, but Mike and Craig demonstrated that you can do a lot more with Movie Talks than I have been doing in my own class.

Mike and Craig started off their Movie Talk by doing a Picture Talk (My mind was blown! Why have I never thought of this?). Craig showed stills from a video (without telling students that there was a video) along with vocabulary in German and English translations that he would need to tell a story about the pictures. He showed the vocabulary and stills side-by-side and asked questions/talked about the stills. He also compared himself with the main character in the video, which was a good way to make sure students were exposed to first, second, and third person verbs. So after showing us a series of pictures of a tall, skinny boy named Alex, Craig first described Alex in the TL (“Alex is a boy. He is tall. He is not short. He is skinny.”) Then he asked us questions about Alex (“Is Alex tall? Is he short? Is he tall or short?”) and then he asked similar questions about himself (“Am I tall? Am I short? Am I skinny?”). As he moved through the series of pictures, he asked more questions and made more statements about Alex, weaving it all together into a story. From there he showed us a reading about Alex using words from the series of pictures, which we were all able to read and understand fairly easily since we had just seen those words as we went through the Picture Talk. And then we finally wanted the whole video that the pictures came from originally, revealing the big plot twist at the end.

This is different from what I have been doing with my Movie Talks, since I have not been including the reading step. And while I have been introducing vocabulary through pictures before showing the entire video, I haven’t been up ALL the words students need ahead of time in conjunction with the pictures. During the demonstration Craig and Mike were teaching us German, and I saw how much easier it was to follow the story with all the vocabulary words projected and translated, so I will be doing that from now on.

Another thing that both Mike and Craig said about Movie Talks is to use them sparingly or else the novelty will wear off and students will tire of them. I have been guilty of overloading my class with Movie Talks, so I will lay off them for a while and do other, novel activities in class.

Another thing Mike and Craig suggested was that we build a back story about someone in the video. For example, if the Movie Talk is about a teenager, how about creating a back story with the class about his parents and/or younger siblings? I think this is a great idea and think that students will really enjoy helping to create a story about a character we all love (or love to hate).

3. Triangling. This is a technique that I hadn’t ever heard of in any other TPRS workshop I have attended. It involves creating a question and answer situation among three people: a character in the story who is played by a student actor, the teacher, and a parallel character. The teacher asks questions about what the character wants (who is represented by a student actor) and then compare those responses with what a parallel character wants and what the teacher wants. We practiced this today with the sentence “Bart wants a cat.” So it went something like this.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher to student actor playing Bart: Bart, do you want a cat?

Student actor: Yes.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher: Class, does Bart want a cat?

Class: Yes.

Teacher: Class, do I want a cat?

Class: No.

Teacher: Correct. I don’t want a cat. I want a dog. Class, do I want a dog or a cat?

Class: Dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Bart wants a cat. Do I want a cat?

Class: No, you want a dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Does Wendy (second student actor and parallel character) want a dog?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. Does Wendy want a cat?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. She wants a guinea pig.

Class: Oh.

Teacher: Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a cat?

Class: You.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a guinea pig?

Class: Wendy.

4. The Five Basic TPRS Skills should be practiced in ALL second language classes taught with CI.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have moved away from classic TPRS in favor of other CI methods. That being said, as I have experimented with other methods of delivering comprehensible input, I feel that I am on the right track, because I still incorporate the five basic TPRS skills into my teaching, which are: circling (a strategy of asking multiple questions, resulting in repetition of high frequency words), pausing and pointing (at a vocabulary word, which gives students time to process), staying in bounds (limiting vocabulary so as not to overwhelm students), requiring choral responses (from students to check that they understand and are staying engaged), and speaking slowly (which aids in comprehension). These five skills help create optimal conditions for acquisition.

If you are new to CI, I encourage you to find a TPRS workshop. Your presenters will demonstrate the power of TPRS by teaching you a new language. You’ll be amazed by how quickly you will be able to read and speak that language, and you will remember what it’s like to be a language student again, which should help you empathize with your students as they acquire the language you teach. Visit the TPRS Books website to find a workshop near you!

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