Winging it, or making TPRS easier

This post was motivated by and includes a lot of what I wrote to a teacher who said that with a new baby, she can’t continue using TPRS for now. She was a little frustrated that some were telling her that once she was using TPRS, she would be able to cut hours off her day. She didn’t feel that way yet.

When I first started TPRS, it was when I had a break from my family (I took students to Russia, where I shared TPRS ideas with another teacher and then the two of us practiced on an unwitting group of English students for 24 hours over the course of two weeks, discussing every lesson while touring town sites with guides) and then when I came home, my mom had to have surgery, so I was living at her house and at the hospital. I had a lot of time to read, read, read in between times when I was actively taking care of her. And then the next year, while I was doing my first stint of TPRS, the lessons didn’t take so long, but I was spending an hour or more daily continuing to read and ask questions. It would have helped to have other knowledgeable teachers around, but there were only a few of us beginning here then, as far as I knew.

I spent a lot of time on Ben Slavic’s blog, and when I didn’t have any juice for the next day, I would pull up his blog or moretprs (either yahoo or .net) and use the first idea I liked. Ben honored my ideas, so that gave me more motivation. I posted questions and got answers on the run about grading and teaching almost every single day. Gurus including Blaine, Susie, Laurie, Jody, Carmen and Kristy would answer my questions right away (as they are still doing for everyone on those sites). Scott let me call him to pester him with questions about assessment. Pretty soon, I was also gathering our local teachers and picking their brains once a month in person. We’ve kept that up. I had a lot of sources of information, but it did take time.

So even when I want to say, “Just relax  and do TPRS–it will save you time,” I have to remember that I was reworking my course every day. Now I am highly grateful for the time saving and the ability to go completely off the seat of my pants any day I need to. But I often write stories after class instead of with the kids, and I still spend hours at times listening to songs that the kids send me or finding the right text.

I spent a lot of time the first couple of years checking my Russian with native speakers. Now I have exchange student aides and a “boarder” in my house who checks things, so I don’t have to pester people by e-mail so much.

Even as I sympathize that TPRS seems to and can take oodles of time, I want to say, “Try to do some every day,” because when you’re doing CI is when your kids are learning the most. Try to do it in a way that requires no preparation: think of your three words as you’re getting to school (keep the 200 high frequency list handy), go in and use the words to talk to the kids. If you do want to ask a story, ask your spouse or another creative teacher for an idea–it need be only three sentences long–or give the students the job of coming up with one in the moments while you’re taking roll (they can write you a mini story on a piece of scratch paper using three target words).

If you’re going to write that information or story up, do it with them–they can copy your writing from a projected form or at least follow along while you add grammar pop-ups. Then change just a few words in that class-written version, and turn it into a reading comprehension quiz, or a translation, or ask them to extend it. You don’t have to be silly or do stories ever! You can just interview your kids and teach them to lie a little to increase interest.

Mondays are easy: just talk to the kids. For the rest of the week, using a schedule for daily “assessment,” even if you don’t grade everything, will give you breaks in being on stage and set a sense of order. You can do closed-eyes T/F quizzes; they don’t know whether you’re marking who gets things right/wrong. They can write (grade only one a month, per Scott), or make up their own comprehension questions on reading and pass them on. They can do group retells of former or original stories. They can create vocabulary quizzes from songs or stories or news for you. The less sure you are about what you’re doing, the more it is helpful to have regular assessment so that kids feel “measured,” even though we know measuring more often does not help them grow. It does help you know what they have understood on a given day or acquired over a time period.

Whenever someone is absent, get the class to conjecture where they are (Oleg was missing in my class on Wednesday, and it seemed he’d been stealing the carts on the rides at Six Flags in San Diego…he walked in on Thursday and knew the whole story from his friends!) — After about ten different writes, you can go back and recycle them for changes in perspective or tense…or even for further changes that the kids will enjoy. You could use those with whatever grammar you’re teaching in class–and your kids’ll be happier because the text will be theirs.

Also, even if you’ve got different levels or different languages, you can use the same stuff in every class. I’ve gone into school some days and used exactly the same story in two classes of English and six levels of Russian. The next day, I’d have every class read every other class’ stories. That gave them lots of competition, inspiration, and new vocabulary, not to mention reading practice. The more advanced groups can then expand on the lower group’s stories, setting in place another cycle.

Finally, if you can find just one good hit song, you can go roughly forever: you can start with doing cloze exercises, move to You Tube (if it’s clean), telling the story before they see the video, asking the story before you tell them the real one, having them act it out, then talking about their favorite lines and when they might quote them, discussing the feelings of the songwriter or what might have motivated the song, looking up the singer or the group and reading about those, but pre-asking a singer’s biography before that, then guessing at the real singer’s bio by looking at a picture and at least describing him/her, comparing to some other singer that they know…and then of course you can sing the song all week long too.

You can do TPRS without spending lots of prep time. Try just a little bit. Stick to the basics. First, get your class expectations solid. Susie says, “Discipline precedes instruction.” Then follow the three steps of TPRS: introduce your vocabulary. Make meaning clear. Second, use the new vocabulary to learn about your kids. Do a story if you wish. You don’t have to. Third, read. Go slowly. Enjoy it.


2 responses to “Winging it, or making TPRS easier

  1. Hi, Michele. It’s so absolutely relieving and refreshing to read this post. I do recognize so many things I’m going through at the moment, after my first year of trying TPRS in a German Waldorf school. And for me, too, there are quite some family and school problems at the moment.
    Though, on the one hand, I have already renounced to lots of time-consuming but often useless worksheets and homework, there are, on the other hand, too many things to be considered at the same time so that I’m often confused.
    You remind me that it is mostly best to choose simple things, to “stick to the basics”, to concentrate on few essential things. Thank you for the encouragement.


    • Hi Martin, I’m glad if it helps. It’s really not necessary to do bells and whistles; kids can become very creative, once they start to realize that you’re listening to them and releasing them from worksheets and homework.

      I hope that by enjoying classes with your students, you can get at least temporary relief from the other problems and start to see some ways through them.


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