What defines a successful homeschool foreign language class?
- The students learn to communicate in that language - listen, read, write and speak.
- The students are able to continue to learn that language after the class is over.
- The students grow a little bit as people during the class.
- The teacher grows a little bit as a person during the class.
- The teacher enjoys a reasonable amount of prep time - hours that are possibly less than, and certainly no more than the length of the class itself.
Here, in a nutshell, are four easy steps I’ve found to make that successful class happen:
Step 1: Pick the right teaching method - TPRS/CI.
Step 2: Find captivating video-based homework activities, and some TPRS readings and novels.
Step 3: Cook, play and live life in class.
Step 4: Use NYS Regents Assessment for your final exam.
Step 1. Pick the right teaching method - TPRS
TPRS, or “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling” is the reason for my writing this entire foreign language blog. TPRS is a type of CI (Comprehensible Input). As a homeschooling Mom and teacher, I know that most homeschool foreign language teachers don’t know about TPRS. We get our information from websites, homeschool conventions, and catalogues. We do our best to find the best curriculum for our children, but sometimes we miss some information. One thing we as homeschoolers have missed in our research, for the most part, is TPRS/CI. It’s gotten hidden somewhere under classical education, Rosetta Stone, and standard printed or internet textbooks. So for the record, I am now pulling TPRS/CI out from its hiding place somewhere inside the huge pile of foreign language resources and putting it on top where you can see it. In short, TPRS is a language teaching method that successfully builds fluency in students with a creative, storytelling technique. TPRS works, and it works really well in a homeschool class, but homeschoolers for the most part don’t know about it. Hence, this blog.
Several research studies (which I will review in another blog post) show significant improvement in fluency among students taught with TPRS over other methods. There are also the positive experiences of other teachers who have adopted TPRS. Susan Gross, for example, was a traditional foreign language teacher of some renown for 20 years, but after trying TPRS in her classroom, she switched to TPRS completely and never looked back. To hear her tell that very funny story, watch this 8 minute video.
TPRS is a method, first created out of necessity by language teacher Blaine Ray in the 1980-90s. Ray saw, just like I have seen in my own language teaching experience, that despite a good heart, good relationships with his students, creative presentations, and an enormous amount of work by the teacher, his students just weren’t learning the languages well as one would hope. Same thing happened to me - most of my students (including 2 of my own kids) will readily tell you that despite 2-3 years of good Spanish classes, they couldn’t say much in Spanish. You see, the relationship we had was good, the curriculum was top of the line, the classes were fun and challenging, and the students trusted me enough to be honest. Honest enough to say they couldn’t really speak Spanish very well.
Ray based his new TPRS method on language acquisition research. First, in the late 1960s James Asher developed a teaching method called TPR or Total Physical Response. In TPR, students respond to input with the gesture or action - “stand up, sit down, put the hat under the chair and run to the door.” TPR is a technique which works because it is comprehensible, involves physical movement and is repetitive without being boring. It helped Ray energize his Spanish classes. There is a point, however, where the teacher runs out of actions, or can’t communicate an idea easily with actions, or students get tired of performing TPR.
Happily, in the early 70s, researcher Steven Krashen listed 5 hypotheses about second language acquisition that Ray was able to creatively apply to his classroom. Researchers have continued to test these hypotheses and so far, they are holding well. They are:
(1) Acquiring a second language (similar to how a baby acquires her first language) is different from learning a second language (typically using a textbook).
(2) No matter what teaching method, a student will acquire 2nd language grammar in a fairly predictable order: first ‘-ing”, then plural, then ‘to be’ verbs, etc. etc.
(3) “Learning” is best used as self-corrector of grammar, and is most effective fairly far along in the acquisition process. (An AP student will use learning to edit a French essay, for example.)
(4) The best way to acquire a second language is to receive lots of repeated natural input that we understand and that is just a little bit beyond what we knew before - no explanation needed, just compelling, comprehensible input.
(5) If you’re happy and you know it, you will acquire language faster. (Yep! Knew that one!)
Ray’s take home principle from the research was that people acquire language by hearing it - hear a word or phrase about 80-100 times, in situations you care about and where the phrase is comprehensible, and then the phrase is yours. Input is key. Output - language lab, workbooks, answering questions with full sentences all the time - does not contribute that much.
The bottom line for Spanish, French, Latin or Chinese class? 4 words:
Compelling, Comprehensible, Repetitive Input
With his new method, TPRS, Ray creatively provided his students with compelling, comprehensible, repetitive input, by telling stories with his class. TPRS in a nutshell goes like this:
1. Write 3 words or phrases on the board, establish and practice the meaning with your students in various ways, like gesture and association.
2. Use those phrases as you engage your students in some personalized conversation.
3. Start to build a story around those phrases - seeking, celebrating and incorporatingstory suggestions from your students. As the story progresses, continue to use a limited amount of vocabulary. Use correct grammar but do not spend much time (15 seconds or less at a time) explaining grammar.
4. Frequently pause in the story to ask a variety of questions employing the new phrases. The questions are not hard and require only one-word answers from the students. The goal here is not to stump the students with your questions, but to provide lots of compelling, comprehensible, repetitive input. Try to achieve 80 - 100 repetitions of each phrase by the end of the story. "Did Joe eat? (Yes) Did Max eat? (No) Did Joe or Max eat? (Joe) Did Joe eat or drink? (Eat) Who ate? (Joe)..."
5. Students do not take notes or write anything down during the story so that they can remain totally engaged in the story.
6. Afterwards, students do a 5-minute rewrite and read stories using the same new phrases, either together in class or at home.
With TPRS, Rays’ students (and mine) started really understanding and speaking the language. In my case, I found the classes easier to teach, the students showed much greater language gains, and they started telling me how they actually used their Spanish on jobs and mission trips and with grandparents. Many other teachers have adopted the TPRS method to great success.
Now, TPRS is not without controversy. Obviously, not all classroom schools use it, or everybody would have heard of it. Some teachers believe output is important, and don’t believe it is a good idea to jettison grammar worksheets or time-honored textbooks. For others, the controversy is really more about whether one should teach with TPRS 100% of the time, or include it as a principle member of an eclectic “Comprehensible Input toolbox”. For a glance into that controversy, visit the website musicuentos.com. There, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell has 3 blogs - “What I Love about TPRS”, “What I Hate about TPRS”, and a guest blog, “Carol Gaab’s Rebuttal to my TPRS Critique” (Carol Gaab is an experienced TPRS teacher and presenter, who also teaches ESL for the San Francisco Giants.).
To sum up so far, Step 1 is: Pick TPRS as your language teaching style! Or at least, please look into it. It will take some effort to learn TPRS if you haven’t done it before - but honestly, this stuff is fun to learn and I believe it will be well worth your time. By ‘some effort’, I mean a day or weekend or so - attend a workshop if possible, or watch some how-to videos and do some reading. Maybe practice a class on friends and family. My other articles will direct you to all those “getting started” workshops, videos and books. You can use whatever curriculum you might already own, or look at some of the TPRS curriculum I’ll show you. I’ll tell you more about the nuances of TPRS, the research, and the pros and cons. We’ll also look at what to do if you have younger students, or if you are a parent with no co-op class available for your children. But for now…on to Steps 2 through 4 to a Successful Homeschool Foreign Language Class!