To Olivia, for TPRS

I haven’t been around for a while for some good reasons, both family and professional. But today I need to retell the story of how I got started on this jag the summer after my 23rd year of teaching.

After final oral exams that 23rd year, a Russian 3 student approached me. She demanded to know whether I’d listened to the oral exams. I was a bit annoyed. What did Olivia think? That I slept through the exams? She persistently argued until she proved to me that every student had used only the structures from the vocabulary that they had acquired during a yearly story-telling month. Although the school, parents, and students regarded my teaching with favor, my class had not acquired anything I taught them in three years unless it was from the three months of storytelling. I was horrified.

I’ll back up. Blaine Ray came to Alaska in the 90’s. I loved his TPRS demonstration. I translated many of his stories and tried hard to adopt his persona. About the time I decided I was too shy to be Blaine and that his stories didn’t fit me, Melinda Forward taught a summer class in Anchorage. She gave me permission to translate her English units into Russian. Each year for three years, I would take one of the units to Russia during my month there with students, and my host and I would laboriously translate it. She got to keep the English versions for her classes. Then I would take the unit home and use it during the bleak days of February. The rest of the year was the usual activity-laden, communicative-based, (insert buzzword here) approach of the minute.

Olivia landed in the first year of three when I was translating units with Nadya. Back at school, every February, we did “that weird TPRS stuff,” and then we would resume the book, the verb charts, the activities, the dialogues.

Once I knew the truth about my results, I began to search the Internet for “easy Russian reading.” Ironically, the first thing I found was advice to contact me for translations of Blaine Ray stories that I’d shared with other teachers. Next, I magically landed on a Ben Slavic post. I was just about to go to Russia with students, so Ben overnighted me both of his existing books (PQA in a Wink and TPRS in a Year). TPRS had evolved so much that it was almost unrecognizable.

I read the books on the plane while my students slept, and formed a plan for a first week teaching English in Russia. I asked for students who were not doing well in English, trading with a teacher who would take my students. I wouldn’t let anyone attend the lessons I would teach. A room full of aboriginal Russian-speaking students looked down at their desks the first day. I don’t remember what I started with, but I do remember that two hours went by in a flash, and when I walked out, my (now) friend Larisa almost attacked me. “Please let me sit in the room with you. I promise not to interfere. I will help you in any way. Those students have never laughed during any class before. I want what you have.”

We began a two-person seminar, each reading one chapter of one of Ben’s books each night, working on lessons together, trading the books back and forth, and debriefing for hours as we pretended to participate in excursions with my students around the city each day. By the end of three weeks, the rest of the English department had heard the buzz. Some of the teachers’ children had joined the college students. They demanded to be able to watch the last class at least. Our group (Larisa, students and I) were nervous, but as we took up our final story, we forgot about the disapproving faces in the background. As we finished the story, I asked who would like to try a retell. The eight-year-old daughter of a science teacher volunteered eagerly. I didn’t know what to expect. She got up in front of the group and confidently told our story of a lonely television who had made friends with a bird and tried to fly from his third-floor window. (Yes, he crashed and broke.) A deathly silence fell. I looked back. There sat an entire row of English teachers with the classic dropped jaws.

That was it for me. I haven’t looked back. I’ve worked hard to read everything possible on Storytelling, on CI, on second-language acquisition, and related topics. Now that Michael Long and Bill Van Patten are pointing to research that supports CI methods and philosophy, I feel vindicated, but I have known from the beginning that TPRS is a great way to start acquiring a language. TPRS gave me a philosophy of teaching and of helping students to acquire language, as well as the tools to use other Comprehensible Input methods in my classes.

After the first day of classes in the same Russian college the next year, the teacher for my group met me in the hall. “What did you do to these kids, Michele? I have to re-write my plans. They already speak Russian!” I had been teaching with TPRS for only a year.

That was also the year Susie Gross came with me. This time, she taught the English, and I was her assistant. We were on television across Russia. The only hitch was that people there were so used to demonstration lessons that viewers didn’t believe what happened in the classes!

The last seven years have been my happiest teaching – and living – years. I am still not a great teacher, but I feel confident that I can help anyone acquire language. TPRS taught me how to love people better. That sounds hokey, but it’s true. The skills, experience, and passion for a successful process have given me opportunities, colleagues, and friends I would never have otherwise known.

Thanks, Blaine. You envisioned a method that works. Thanks to so many others. But most of all, thank you Olivia. May you acquire Armenian quickly and start changing policy from the ground up. If anyone can do it, you will.


2 responses to “To Olivia, for TPRS

  1. Susan Underwood

    Expect that you ARE A PHENOMENAL teacher!


    • You’re sweet. I am a sincere person who has found an excellent life tool due to a series of fortunate events. Phenomenal teachers: Susie Gross, Laurie Clarcq…I knew I shouldn’t start naming names. We are lucky to have giants in the SLA community.


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