NTPRS 2018 Conference, Days 3 and 4 – Trust the Process

On Wednesday at the NTPRS conference, our workshop presenter, the fabulous Jason Fritze, talked to us about Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). PQA involves asking students a series of questions to get them to talk about themselves and their interests in the second language (L2).

In many ways, PQA is simply a class discussion. That being said, it is VERY important that the questions being asked don’t require students to create too much output at first. In many comprehensible input (CI) classrooms, PQA relies heavily on Yes-No or Either-Or questions, especially in the beginning levels.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to find out what students like to do in their spare time. Here is how I would do my PQA:

  1. Use Yes-No questions in the L2 to establish maybe 2 or 3 activities that students like to do such as “Do you like to play basketball?” or “Do you like to watch TV?” or “Do you like to do homework?” I also make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other to expose students to first, second, and third person verbs.
  2. Once I have a few activities named, I can then move on to Either-Or questions like “Do you like to watch TV or do homework?” “Do you like to play basketball or watch TV?” I might also add a third or fourth activity to the Either-Or if asking about the previously mentioned activities are getting a bit stale. Once again, I make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other.
  3. Once we’ve done Yes-No and Either-Or questions, I can them start asking open-ended questions with an interrogative such as “What do you like to do?” or “Who likes to watch TV?” In my class, one of my student jobs is the Question Word Translator. After I say a question word in the L2, the Question Word Translator shouts out the English translation before I finish the question, kind of like this:
    1. Me: Qui…
    2. Question Word Translator: Who!
    3. Me: …aime le football?

In one of the workshops I went to on Day 4, presenter Lance Piantaggini mentioned that, after the teacher has gotten used to the PQA progression, s/he may want to vary that progression, because it may get predictable and stale. Lance also said that, in some languages (like Chinese and Latin), Either-Or questions might be easier than Yes-No, so he recommends starting with Either-Or questions in those situations. Lance also said that he may omit the Yes-No and Either-Or questions as the year progresses if he feels that his students are strong enough to skip straight to the interrogatives.

Jason Fritze acknowledged that it can be difficult to come up with good PQA questions spontaneously, so he recommends that teachers script out PQA questions ahead of time to use as reference. Jason said that he often takes five minutes of his planning period to script questions both as a guide to use during class but also to practice creating PQA questions. Lance Piantaggini said that he kept his question words posted in the back of the room so he could refer to them for inspiration if he does spontaneous PQA in class.

In many instances, the goal of the PQA is to use that student information to create a story using Storyasking techniques (Storyasking involves using questions to flesh out the details of a story by having students suggest details for the teacher to include in the narrative). Jason Fritze referred to this as “spinning the story.” So in the above example, finding out about someone who likes to watch TV but doesn’t like to do homework and someone else who likes to play basketball may lead to a story about a student who tried to do his/her homework as quickly as possible so s/he could watch America’s Got Talent, couldn’t find a pencil to do the homework, so s/he had to phone a friend to borrow one, but the friend wasn’t home because he was at a basketball game.

Many presenters acknowledge that being willing to let the story develop naturally involves the teacher being able to relinquish control of the class and trust the PQA-to-Class Story process. Jason Fritze, referencing the movie Frozen, told the class that we had to “…be like Elsa and let it go.” Von Ray, who led a workshop about improvisation in the CI classroom, echoed Jason’s words by telling us that we needed to “trust the process.” Both Jason and Von acknowledge that this may be very difficult for teachers (I have written about my own troubles with Storyasking in this post), so they recommend that teachers always have a back up story that they can use in case the student story falls flat or veers off into a direction that might be either inappropriate or impractical (The teacher can write his/her own backup story or purchase pre-written stories like these and these).

All the presenters who talked about PQA, Storyasking, and improvisation at the NTPRS 2018 conference agree that stories based on the students themselves are very powerful. They are compelling because they are about the students themselves. Since they are highly interesting, students are more likely to be engaged in the process, which ideally should lead to more language acquisition and proficiency gains. I for one plan to include lots of days where I use the PQA-to-Class Story process. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 3 – Five Expressions We Should Stop Using When Talking About Language Instruction

The highlight of the third day of this year’s NTPRS conference was an afternoon keynote speech by Dr. Bill Van Patten. Dr. Van Patten’s nickname, for obvious reasons, is BVP, and he is an expert on second language acquisition (SLA). In his keynote address on Wednesday he talked about five words that he thinks all of us who work and teach in the field of language acquisition should eliminate from our vocabulary when we talk about our language classrooms.

The first expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word foreign. The word “foreign” has synonyms such as “strange” or “bizarre.” These synonyms cast a negative light on the second language and implies that it is not as good as the first language. As BVP pointed out, it is odd that we use the word “foreign” to describe a language potentially spoken by millions of people as well as something that may get lodged in our eye that we need to go to the emergency to have removed. BVP says that when we talk about another language besides our target language we should use “second” or “another” in place of foreign.

At my last school, our language department had been “Department of Foreign Languages” for many years. The last year I was there, I advocated that we change the name to “Department of World Languages.” BVP takes it one step further and says we should just call our departments “Department of Languages and Culture.” I like that.

The second expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word error. BVP says that, in second language acquisition, errors don’t technically exist. When learners don’t speak accurately, they are simply manifesting what their internal language systems are capable of at their particular proficiency level. Furthermore, the word “error” suggests that the language speaker has the ability to be correct if s/he just listened to feedback when being corrected, which is not true in language acquisition due to the unconscious nature of the process. Instead, BVP suggests that we use the term “developmental form” instead of “error,” which I really like. It eliminates all negative connotations and accurately represents what those emerging forms really are.

The third expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word student. This word implies that the person wishing to speak another language can become proficient due to conscious study (of vocabulary lists and explicit grammar explanation), just like s/he can in other subjects like math and history. And while this works if our goal is for the person to learn about the language, it doesn’t work if our goal is for a person to be able to become proficient in actually using the language. BVP suggests that we use the term “learner” or “classroom learner” instead. Personally, I prefer the term “language acquirer,” and while that may be more accurate, it is a bit wordy, so I guess I’ll stick with “learner.”

The fourth expression BVP wants us to eliminate is language teaching. He argues that, if our classroom goal is to advance language proficiency, we are not teaching but facilitating. In a comprehensible input (CI) driven classroom, the goal of the teacher is to provide as much CI as possible. We don’t ever really teach students how to use the language. Instead, we model how to use the language and provide repeated exposure to words and expressions in the language in a comprehensible and compelling way. With any luck, that exposure will eventually become part of our students’ internal language system and will help develop their proficiency.

BVP says that what we are really doing in our classrooms is not language teaching. It is language facilitating. So by extension, I am not a language “teacher” but a language “facilitator.” This comment reminds me of a quote by American poet Robert Frost: “I am not a teacher but an awakener.”

The fifth and final expression BVP wants us to eliminate caused quite a strong audience reaction, because BVP was speaking in front of a room full of teachers dedicated to teaching with CI. The fifth expression BVP wants us to eliminate from our vocabulary is COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT!!! Um, what?!?

BVP says that the term “comprehensible input” is problematic for three reasons. First of all, it can be polarizing, because it divides teachers into two camps – CI teachers versus textbook/legacy teachers. Quite frankly, we have enough division in the US and the world as it is, so we shouldn’t be trying to create animosity in an area where it is not needed. Second, it is being used inappropriately, because it is being used to describe a technique, which is usually the same techniques used in a legacy classroom christened with a new name and maybe some slight adjustments. That’s when you hear teachers say, “I teach grammar with CI” or “I use the textbook with CI.”), which are oxymoronic. Third, the term is seen as being outdated in the larger educational community, who sees it as just another approach that has come and gone much like the old-fashioned Audio-Lingual Method of second language teaching (Just recently, I saw a comment on the CI Liftoff Facebook page where someone was looking for an expression to use instead of using “comprehensible input” because of her administrator’s negative interpretation of the term. This is not uncommon).

BVP wants us to use the term “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” instead of “comprehensible input (CI).” I don’t think it is going to catch on within the CI community, but that is because all of us in that community know what real comprehensible input should look like. So I suggest that we keep the term “comprehensible input (CI)” for use among ourselves and use “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” with those outside of the CI community.

Once BVP finished his presentation, he ended the session with a flourish. You’ll have to watch this if you want to know exactly how he did that. And if you don’t want to, let’s just say that people don’t call BVP the “diva of SLA” for nothing.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 2 – TPRS

Hi all! If you haven’t already, read my last post about Day One of the NTPRS conference for my summary of the Advanced track before you continue with this post, which is my summary of Day Two.

On Day Two, our workshop presenter, Jason Fritze, spent most of the day talking about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS is a very powerful comprehensible input (CI) based second language teaching method invented by Blaine Ray. TPRS includes these three steps:

  1. Step One: Establish meaning. Usually, a TPRS teacher has certain structures in mind that s/he wishes to teach, so s/he establishes meaning of those target structures first. Using Total Physical Response (TPR), which I wrote about in my last post, is a good way to establish meaning. Teachers can also establish meaning through pictures, gestures, or direct English translation (If you would like to know my opinion about using translation in a second language class, read this post). Once the teacher has established meaning, s/he may start to ask students personal questions containing one of the structures. This technique is called Personalized Question and Answer (PQA). For example, pretend the teacher wishes to teach “likes to play.” With this is mind, the teacher might ask questions about who likes to play certain sports or instruments and compare what different students like to play. The teacher may also use circling techniques that I talked about in my last post along with PQA. Since students love to talk about themselves, PQA is a highly engaging activity. And since teachers and students learn all kids of personal information about each other, it is also a great community builder. Jason and Linda Li make PQA look effortless, but Jason pointed out that PQA questions are much more powerful and entertaining when scripted ahead of time.
  2. Step Two: Ask a story. More experienced TPRS teachers can spin PQA into a story. This is what Linda Li did when she came to do more Mandarin with us. On Day One Linda had spent most of her time teaching us some structures such as “has” and “looks at” and “happy.” Then today she took those structures and wove them into a story about someone who is unhappy because he does not have an iPhone. Since he doesn’t have an iPhone, he can’t look at his pretty friend via FaceTime. Linda had some workshop participants come up and be student actors. At first when they had to say something, Linda stood behind their back and had them move their mouth to make it look as if they were speaking while she said the Mandarin words. Then later on students said the words themselves with some prompting from Linda when they felt more comfortable. Jason Fritze suggests that all teachers keep a “back-up” story in case the story spun as a result of PQA falls flat.
  3. Step Three: Read. Once we finished acting out the story, our next step was to review the story through reading. As we discussed what happened in our story, Linda wrote it down for us so we could see and read it. Reading is an essential step in the TPRS process because it ties everything together, reinforces what we have already heard, and compliments our spoken input by providing written input. Jason Fritze said that it is important to establish class procedures and expectations before the class reads. In Jason’s class, students are expected to look at the page and follow along as Jason reads the story. Students who need extra support are offered Post-Its, bookmarks, or highlighters to help them focus. Sometimes the class does whole group reading and sometimes the students do partner reading. Along with reading the text, checking for comprehension is also important. One way to check reading comprehension is to have the class translate chorally in their native language (L1) after the teacher or a student reads in the second language (L2). Another good strategy to check reading comprehension is for teachers to start reading a sentence in the L2 and have the students finish that sentence in the L2. Teachers can also do a spot check for comprehension by occasionally stopping while reading to ask students to produce a gesture to represent certain words.

TPRS has been around since the 1980’s, so many materials are available to teachers who want to use TPRS in their classrooms but don’t have the desire or improvisational skills to create their own stories. Most textbooks these days include a TPRS reader with their ancillary materials. I have never been a fan of those stories, but they are a decent place to start, especially for teachers who are still expected to teach from a textbook. In addition, TPRS Books has lots of resources available, including entire curriculum packages in multiple languages. Jim Tripp has created a set of TPRS stories that are available on his website, and Anna Matava has a book of story scripts in English that are available through Teacher’s Discovery.

In addition, TPRS Books spends a large part of their year traveling throughout the United States and Canada hosting TPRS workshops. So if the national conference (which will be in the Chicago area next year) is not possible, chances are you can find a smaller, more affordable one closer to home. And in some cases, if you can get a group of more than 30 teachers, the boys at TPRS Books may come out and host a free workshop for you and your colleagues! So what do you have to lose? Give TPRS a try!

NTPRS Conference 2018, Day 1 – Routines, Circling, and Total Physical Response

Hi everybody! Happy summer vacation! I just spent last week at the National Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (NTPRS) conference, and I came home with loads of great ideas to use in my classroom and share on this blog.

I signed up for the Advanced track, which was taught by the fabulous Jason Fritze. To start, Jason had us all get in groups to talk about our successes as language teachers. And boy, did we have wonderful successes! We had teachers who increased enrollment and had healthy language programs where students continued to take upper-level classes due to their own successes and high engagement. We had teachers who had led Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) training sessions, whose attendees had become trainers themselves, and teachers who reported having better relationships with students both in and out of class. Jason said that it is important to remember these successes because so often we focus on the negative. He even keeps old notes and cards from students so he can take them out and look at them when he has a bad day. What a great idea!

After celebrating our successes, Jason talked to us about the important of routines in the language classroom. Routines help the class run smoothly and is an absolutely essential component of any behavior management system. If students come into class knowing exactly what is expected of them, the classroom teacher doesn’t have to waste time explaining what to do and can focus on providing comprehensible input (CI).

From there, we transitioned to talking about circling. Circling is a question technique that is an essential element of teaching with TPRS. When a teacher circles, s/he asks a series of questions. Usually the teacher starts with a yes/no question (Does Susie have a dog?), moves on to an either/or question (Does Susie have a dog or a cat?), and then asks open-ended questions (What does Susie have?). Jason gave us two useful tips about circling. First of all, he recommended that we start with a question where the answer will be “no.” He calls this “The Power of No.” So for example, if Susie has a dog, the first question asks if she has a cat. Starting with a negative question requires you to ask more questions, which gets you more repetitions. Since we need to hear words repeatedly to acquire them, getting more repetitions is very important. The second tip Jason gave us was for teachers to circle in random order once they felt comfortable with the “yes/no,” “either/or,” “open-ended” structure. The main reason for this is that the predictable order may become stale after a while. Since we don’t want our students to get bored, varying the question order should keep them on their toes and keep them more engaged.

Our morning session then included a visit from the absolutely fabulous Linda Li. Linda came in to teach us Mandarin. Being a Mandarin student was awesome for me. It helped me start to acquire a new language, observe a rock star teacher, and remember what it feels like to be a student who knows practically nothing in the language. I had been watching some Mandarin videos on YouTube to expose myself to the language, but not enough to give me any security or comfort in Mandarin class.

As Linda taught, Jason stopped occasionally and commented on Linda’s teaching from time to time. In this morning session, he commented about Linda’s use of Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is an approach where teachers say things in the target language (TL) and students do an action or gesture representing that action. Action verbs, objects, and adverbs are great words to use when doing TPR in class. Be careful not to use something whose meaning is not clear (For example, if you point to your head that could be either “think” or “believe.” Don’t confuse your kids!).

Linda uses the following TPR steps:

Step One: She establishes meaning of a new word, assigns it a gesture and does the gesture when she uses the word in context. Students mimic her gesture.

Step Two: After multiple repetitions of the word with the gesture, Linda says the word but delays doing the gesture to see if students can do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step One. If they can, she continues at this step for a while.

Step Three: Linda says the word but does not perform the gesture and lets the students do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step Two. If they can, she continues at this step.

Both Linda and Jason divide the class into two groups. They assign each group a country or city name. In Mandarin class, our two groups were Taiwan and Beijing. This added some variety so she could ask only one place to do a certain gesture. So she could say, “Class, look at Jason.” “Beijing, look at Jason.” “Taiwan, look at Jason.” Then she could add even more repetitions by saying, “Taiwan, look at Beijing,” “Beijing, look at Taiwan,” and even “Taiwan, don’t look at Beijing,” and “Beijing, don’t look at Taiwan.” It was pretty amazing how many commands she was able to generate while only concentrating on one Mandarin word (look at = kan).

Jason Fritze is a big fan of TPR. He said that doing good TPR helps us become better TPRS teachers, which I do agree with. TPR forces us to think on our feet and give different commands. It also demands that we practice being creative with very few words. Another reason Jason likes TPR is because it provides a good brain break for our students (If you want to learn more about brain breaks, visit Annabelle Allen’s blog) while still providing CI. He said, “I think of TPR as a brain break where the language keeps flowing.”

Once our session was over for the day, I went to get Starbucks. While I was in line I ran into Gary DiBianca, who was in charge of the coaching. I told him that seeing Linda teach was amazing, but also made me doubt my own teaching abilities. He informed me that Linda teaches the same Mandarin lesson at conferences all the time, and, as result, it comes across as being very polished. That certainly made me feel better, and also made me realize that it doesn’t matter if I’m as good as Linda or any other TPRS teacher out there. All that matters is that I have made it my goal to teach effectively and to improve my classroom practices. And, quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter where I am on my CI journey as long as I continue to travel.