17 December 2010

I was for a very long time confused by the acronym "TPRS".

They told me it was TPR Storytelling, where TPR was Total Physical Response.  But then they told me that it had nothing to do with TPR.  Yeah.  That's clear.

So anyway, when I was searching YouTube for language a definition of comprehensible input (see last week's post) a couple of suggestions popped up with the keyword TPRS, so I figured it was time to dive in and see what it really was about.  I personally love the idea of teaching using stories, but I have to admit I was always skeptical about the practicalities of it.

The first video I came across was this one, which is an edited video of a TPRS demonstration, so explains quite a bit about what's going on (in French with English subtitles):

(There's another few good examples that show the process by user mrtejeda, but he has switched off embedding, so I can't include any of them directly in this article.)

The basic gist of it seems to be to tell them something and ask them what you've told them, then tell them something more and ask them what you've told them, ad nauseum.

The very odd thing here is how he starts by asking them what the fish (the subject of the story is called) but rejects all supplied names in favour of one of his own choosing.  This isn't the first time I've seen this -- Pierre Capretz's video-based course French in Action does the same thing.  In the case of French in Action, this is because he has the videos prerecorded, so can't change the names on the fly, but why does the teacher in this video, where the story could easily be changed (as the only resource here is himself as storyteller), not simply accept a name from the floor?  When we talk about student engagement, we want the students to make a personal investment in the story, and getting them involved in building the story is a great way to do that.  On the other hand, asking their opinions on something then completely ignoring it is a great way to alienate your students - it shows them you don't care what they think.

The problem here isn't with the idea of storytelling as a teaching method - rather the problem is the received wisdom that asking people's names is a core beginner skill.  From this starting point, you're forced into practising asking names, and asking your students the name of the main character ends up as a staple of your early stories.  But asking names is not an intrinsically basic skill, particularly in the Romance languages where it involves use of reflexive verbs.  I actually think it could be detrimental to introduce it early, but that's a matter for another post.  Really, there are other language points that would be far better suited to TPRS than introductions and pleasantries.

But anyway, once he asked students for a name, he should have gone with it, no matter how stupid.  After all, he does appear to go on to allow one of the students to determine that the fish isn't very intelligent, and surely that's more fundamental to the story than the fish's name... (I say "appear to", because if there was a right answer, then the first respondent had a 50:50 chance of getting it right.)

Anyway, once the teacher has stopped the pointless guessing game and told them the fish's name, the class indicate their comprehension with a big clear "aaaaaaaaaaahhh", with is repeated every time the teacher provides a piece of new information.  But does it really indicate comprehension?  Note how the teacher is prompting for it - I'm sure many people in that class (or at least in my old high school) would make that noise on cue regardless of whether they understand or not.

When he asks questions about whether Fabio is a fish or a car, I'm left wondering why.  It's slowing down the story, and surely by now all the sign-language has guaranteed some level of understanding...? If the sign-language makes the input into "comprehensible input", then comprehension is achieved despite not being familiar with the word, and you are at best testing the students' ability to understand the mime, not the word. This hardly seems an appropriate goal for a language class.

In fact, there are multiple cues that tell the student they can ignore this word.
The style of questioning during comprehension check is a bit different from that in the new information section, so students will learn to distinguish between when they're being asked their opinion and when they're being asked to confirm old information.
"Voiture" is a new word in this session, and we're in a comprehension check.  "Poisson" is a word that has been said lots during that session.  "Voiture" obviously can be ignored.
And if you still haven't twigged that it's a new word, just look at the teacher.  He's miming, and he only does that with new words.  If it's a new word, you can ignore it.
It arguably takes a bad learner to go beyond this point still caring that the mime is a car, but knowing that he's miming a car just tells you that whatever he's saying isn't relevant to the story of a fish.
Very few people will be paying attention to the word at this point, so no-one's learning it.

Another problem the teacher introduces is by presenting sentences and seeking affirmation of understanding from them, blurring the boundaries between question and statement.

He does seem to get through a few different language points, but it does seem odd to me that he's talking about laughing and crying, but still needs to point out "pourquoi" on the board.  The whole thing seems just a little bit baffling, and by accepting one-word answers, we may know that they've understood the message, but we can't know that they've understood the language.  But then again, as this technique emerges from the theoretical standpoints of a "Silent Period" and of "Comprehensible Input", we already know that the teacher assumes that understanding of content comes before understanding of grammar and/or vocabulary.

The problem I have with this assumption is quite straightforward: if you can understand the message without understanding the language, why would you ever need to learn the language?  The brain generally only goes to the minimum of effort required to obtain an adequate result (which is why I assume most good learners will ignore "voiture"), and a great deal can be understood with a flawed model of the language.

Now, here's another demonstration, and notice how quiet the class is here.

The description of this video says:
"Me using my principal and his admin assistant as guinea pigs to give a demonstration of using 95% target language with high comprehension to teach Spanish. The demonstration was for the other 2 teachers in my department. The targets (off the top of my head with not much forethought) were quién, rojo & azul, masc/fem, come and canta."
So this is a class of theoretically "good" students, but they're pretty silent all the way through.  In fact, the teacher looks increasingly frantic as she keeps asking "¿Quién?" but nobody answers (presumably because they haven't worked out that this means "who?" yet).
Several times over, she asks questions by saying "quién" and then a name, which is about as good as saying in English something like "Who, Mickey Mouse?"  It's language, but it's not the common form, and in my opinion it is simplified to the point where it ceases to provide a good foundation for future learning.  It suggests that TPRS, like so many techniques, doesn't really work until you've got a basic grounding to build on.

Now think about some of the statements and questions.
"Mickey Mouse es guapo."
Really?  Mickey Mouse is good-looking?  It seems a very odd way to demonstrate a new word.  First of all, "guapo" or otherwise is a matter of subjective judgement, so is difficult to teach by example at the best of times.  Secondly, how do you make that judgement about a cartoon mouse? Mickey Mouse doesn't demonstrate the concept of "good-looking", so the students can just fumble about and say yes or no without genuinely comprehending the question.

But then she goes on to ask which of two women is better looking.  We're working in very new language and she's asking her class to make subjective judgements before they're clear on the meaning.  In subjective judgements like this, there's no right or wrong answer, so it you simply cannot check comprehension.  Yet the teacher feels the need to check comprehension and challenges the student.  Unfortunately the student does not and cannot know what's going on and there's an awkward immobile moment of silence.  Putting myself in the student's place (and while I've not been in a TPRS classroom, I have been in several target-language-only classrooms), I imagine my brain churning over, looking for whatever "mistake" I made that prompted this barrage of questions.  If I was a schoolkid, I'd maybe even start blushing, wondering if I'd picked the socially unacceptable option, and the embarassment would snowball.

At 3'45" one of the student asks for confirmation of -a vs -o in adjectival endings, and the teacher tells him that's not how the class works.  This is the usual insistence that in an immersive environment, grammar is not "taught", students just "acquire" it; but if we look at it, the teacher is explicitly highlighting the change of vowel.  She is, whether she likes it or not, presenting the rule, and anyone who actually learns from her laboured routine of pointing and saying will be able to explain the rule.  So if the student works it out, what's wrong with confirming? In fact, at 4'35", the student in background explains the rule, and the teacher says not to talk about it.  It's difficult for me to accept that conscious knowledge of the rules could be so caustic that it has to be avoided at all costs when she is going to such lengths to give the rule in a roundabout way.

The other thing that this lesson demonstrates is the difficulty of relying on memory.  At one point she asks the colour of someone's shoes.  Does this test comprehension or does it test memory?  It will never be clear whether a student's inability to respond comes from not remembering the fact under test or from not remembering the correct term.  If you're asking someone to remember something, it needs to be something memorable, and colours (the first video used colours too) are minor aesthetic details - they are not usually what you pay attention to in stories, and making them more important than they naturally are will interfere with the learner's ability to process the language in a natural manner.

Now note this curiosity from the same demonstration:

We're getting back into classroomese again -- teaching an unusual mini-sign-language for students to use as a way of avoiding native language in the classroom.  No matter how simple the code, introducing a sign language means the classroom is not monolingual, yet they insist that this is monolingual teaching.

Now the following example story, stripped back to just the "story" itself, struck me as rather surreal.

Is this really a "story"...?
Anyway, while it's obvious what language it's supposed to demonstrate (liking, wanting), it's not really clear whether it's going to be teaching anything more than the words "llama" and "elefante".

It's quite striking that of all the videos I've watched on TPRS, none demonstrates how to introduce new abstract language or structures.  As with most target-language-only learning, in TPRS there seems to be a massive emphasis on concrete vocabulary.

And sadly, as I've said before, vocabulary is the easy bit.  I don't have a great deal of time for any language teacher who does the easy stuff and avoids the hard stuff.  The easy stuff we can do without their help.  What I want from a teacher is for them to take the hard stuff and make it easy for me.

TPRS has it's place - I can see a well-constructed story offering a great change from the usual lesson format, but trying to build an entire course out of it just seems like madness, because for all its strengths, you still need something else to address the weaknesses I identified above.

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