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.

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