Category Archives: teaching-method

Can role-play help fluency?

In The Language Teacher, March/April 2010’s “Readers’ Forum”, Eric Bray writes about role-play in EFL (PDF, login and password required) (the TLT homepage mistakenly attributes the article):

Unlike more controlled language learning activities, roleplays [sic] are tasks which fall towards the freer end of the language learning activity continuum discussed by Nunan (2004) and Richards and Rodgers (2001), and give students practice accessing their current language resources. This builds fluency…

However, Krashen noted that a corollary of his input hypothesis is

Talking (output) is not practicing
Krashen stresses yet again that speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition. Although speaking can indirectly assist in language acquisition, the ability to speak is not the cause of language learning or acquisition. Instead, comprehensible output is the result of language acquisition.

The article includes no evidence that roleplay helps students to develop fluency, although it does suggest ways in which it might “indirectly assist in language acquisition”.

if roleplays are set up carefully, students can get useful practice in situations they are likely to encounter abroad, while developing fluency and the confidence to deal with the unpredictability inherent in real world language use…

Indeed, Bray admits that “students must have adequate language ability to be successful with role-play”.

In Margarete Wells’ December 2008 review (PDF, login and password required) of Bray’s roleplay textbook (link to the publisher’s info page for this book), we find

the language of some instructions and model materials… is very high for EFL students… learners whose level is at least low intermediate, but preferably higher, would stand to gain the most in terms of  increased confidence and improved proficiency, by using this book. The course relies heavily on learners being willing to think on their feet and be linguistically creative, not to mention the heavy stress on question techniques, which would seem to be very demanding for lower level students. (Margarete Wells, “Moving on With English: Discussion, Role Plays, Projects”, The Language Teacher 32,12 (December 2008): 21)

Even her post low-intermediate students “needed considerable input in terms of language and ideas”. This would seem to indicate that, in order to do these roleplays, students already need to have acquired a certain fluency, which undermines Bray’s claim, but supports Krashen’s view (see above).

In his conclusion, Bray points to what might be a strong motivation for a teacher to use roleplays (and by the way, Bray writes it as one word in his TLT article, yet in the title of his book the term is written as two, unhyphenated, words):

Finally, successful roleplays can transform the atmosphere of the classroom into a more fun and exciting place where anything can happen and probably will.

Now, I’m not against fun and excitement. However, teachers need to be clear on what their purposes and their priorities are, lest we fall into the trap of becoming illusionists. And we are still left with the problem of how to develop our students’ fluency.

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TPRS Workshop in Nagasaki! – Cancelled

Waterfront in Nagasaki, Japan
Image via Wikipedia

Update: This workshop has been cancelled.

There will be a 3-day TPRS workshop in Shimbara, Nagasaki, Jan. 15-17. The workshop will be in English with interpretation in Japanese. The workshop will be led by Susan Gross, a TPRS veteran (Ben Slavic mentions her constantly on his blog as his inspiration and teacher), and Melinda Kawahara who has been teaching in Japan for 21 years and whose lessons are all based on TPRS. She runs her own language school called Lindy Lizard English House.

To find out more, visit the elt calendar.

Susan Gross is so well known that, once the word starts to get out, places are likely to fill up very quickly.

Susan Gross’ website, like Ben Slavic’s, is a treasure island of information and resources on, about and for TPRS. Check it out.

Here’s what I emailed some friends to let them know about this workshop:

I want to tell you about this workshop next month.

Do you know about TPRS?

You can read more on the ELT calendar and download a bilingual pdf flier from there.

The workshop will be led by Susan Gross, a veteran of TPRS and nationally known in the US as a TPRS teacher and teacher-trainer.

I think TPRS has much potential for teachers of English in Japan, particularly in the elementary and high schools, i.e. for near beginners up to intermediate (and that includes most of the uni students I teach!).

Since finding out about TPRS a few months ago, it has had a big impact on my teaching. Briefly, I’ve completely changed the way I teach. It’s too early to point to definite results in terms of test results, but I’m enjoying teaching more now than I have for a long time.


* there’s a lot more eye-contact in class between me and students
* I’m talking in English with students for much more of the time (over an hour each class)- before, I had students do pair-work a lot of the time, and I spoke to students individually, but not so much to the whole class
* my classes are more focused on fluency
* I know much more accurately how much my students understand, and work hard to ensure that ALL of them understand EVERYTHING I say
* many students who were tuning out because they did not understand and I hadn’t noticed, are now paying attention
* students are learning tons of vocabulary each week and RETAINING much of it (I do spot quizzes each week)
* a lot of the ideas for input comes from the students, from things they say or write or suggestions they make (e.g. in a recent session on health, I was asking students “Have you ever broken a bone?” then “When?” and “How?” Then I told them I’d broken my foot over 10 years ago and I asked them to guess how. One student suggested an elephant stepped on it. I accepted his suggestion (much more interesting than the truth!)
* students are the focus of the language input: I’m talking about them as much of the time as I can
* classes are more fun (we laugh more) and less stressful for me and students

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Keeping track

Olympus Digital Voice Recorder
Image via Wikipedia

All new vocab goes on the board. I don’t care if everyone in the class understands and recognizes the item except one person; for that one person, it goes on the board (and I’m sure at least one other person is grateful).

I very quickly ran out of room on the board, but I squeezed things on until the bell rang. While the students are filing out, I carefully noted down everything on the board on an index card, and used it for review, spot quizzes, etc., the next time. This also reminded me of what we had done in class.

I had been recording my classes with a lapel mic and a voice recorder, but I did not always remember to switch it on. Plus, the recordings have been piling up unedited on my hard-drive, waiting for me to get around to posting them on this blog. (I want to see if students will access the recordings and/or find them useful: it could be a way to “revise” before the final exam.)

Then there were a couple of classes when I had to leave in a hurry because the next teacher was waiting to use the room. I had no record.

Today, I spent the last 10 minutes or so of class giving a dictation of sentences that included most of the key structures and vocabulary that we had covered (I wiped the board clean before giving the dictation).

I did not do it as a “dictee” a la Ben Slavic, i.e. I just dictated the sentences and collected their papers.

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Hit one out of the park

He's got that crazy gleam again.
Image by A-Wix via Flickr

Ben Slavic wrote:

Then, one day, we may hit one out of the park, and then overhear a kid walk out of class and say, “French is cool!” and we realize that all of the struggle is worth it, that we are doing things in our classrooms that we have never been able to do before, and then that carries over to our private lives, as I wanted to say above, and things just change overall for us.

That reminded me of something that happened on Friday. I’ve been doing my own, untutored, version of TPRS for just over a month, now, but only with my freshmen classes. On Friday, I tried it out with a 2nd-year class in which I have been doing something quite different. Each week, I’ve been giving them a number of different activities: 5 minutes’ free writing, 10 minutes reading, 10 minutes listening, a grammar worksheet, a vocab quiz, etc. They can choose their own reading and listening material from our self-access library. On Friday, I spent 20 minutes or so before class reading their 5-minute-writing pieces, and picking out the more egregious errors and listed them on a card. I walked into class with that card and began PQA about what time they got up, did they have breakfast, what they had, what they liked, what they didn’t like, etc., until I had covered all the errors listed on my card. I did not tell students what I was doing (correcting their errors), and I was writing things on the board constantly as I discovered that, though they knew the words, many students could not recognize the words when they came out of my mouth.

I had intended to do this for just 45 minutes, leaving the remaining 45 minutes for the regular “self-access” activities. One student walked in late and after greeting him, I asked him (as I’d been asking students every 10 minutes to practice telling the time), “What time is it?” As he hadn’t had the practice, he was slow off the bat, but a girl in the front row said, 9.55. The girl sitting next to her then said, “What? You mean we’ve been going for an hour, already?”

Chuffed I was.

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Fluency in writing – what is it? How do you “teach” it?

Fluency in writing? What does that mean? How do you teach it?

Some problems I face teaching writing at university here in Japan are
a) a big spread of ability amongst students (some cannot put a sentence together, indeed have no idea what a “sentence” is, while others are nearly fluent)
b) (partly a result of a) above) unclear goals and unclear rubrics for assessment and evaluation.

I’m impressed with TPRS‘ focus on fluency, and am pondering how that translates into reading / writing activities.

Many TPRS teachers stress the importance of the fact that language is acquired audially, not visually: through the ears, not through the eyes (i.e. through listening rather than through reading). That seems to imply that the students who “can’t put a sentence together” should get lots of LISTENING in the early stages, rather than writing or even reading (tho perhaps reading and listening).

I teach one writing class twice a week, and I’ve been giving them free reading time on one day a week, and focusing on writing the other day.  What I have not been giving them is a clear sense of how they are doing. In my speaking classes, however, I’m working very hard to make sure that all students understand everything.

I’m re-thinking my objectives and what kind of assessments would fit those objectives, and what kind of rubrics would be needed.

Altho my students are getting lots of reading and writing practice, they’re not getting much assessment at the moment: I’m not telling them how they are doing other than by error correction, and to help promote fluency, I want to back off error correction for the time being. But I want to let them know how they are doing.

Over the weekend, I’ll be re-reading Susan Gross’ article on assessment (pdf), and taking a look at the rubrics for writing, reading and speaking created by Susan Gross and by Jason Fritze.

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A month on TPRS

Well, almost a month. Time to take stock. What’s happened?

Today, I taught two classes of EFL, both without a textbook and in one I used a song. For the rest of the time, it was just me talking and asking simple questions, using information supplied by the students themselves. TPRS works.

And I haven’t even really started telling stories yet! Just today, I made up a story using student input and used it as dictation. Some students were volunteering interesting alternative versions, but I did not feel comfortable using them, as the main character in the story was one of the students. Shame! Their suggestions were more vivid than mine.

I’ve noticed a few things:

  1. I need a backup plan, in case I dry up and run out of ideas during the class. Having a backup plan – some non-TPRS material – helps me relax and so far I’ve only had to use it once.
  2. I need input from students, and a good way to get it is to ask them to write freely (on any topic) for a fixed amount of time: usually 5 minutes.
  3. How to use the students’ input? I’ve been doing the simple and obvious: making simple statements, then asking questions about it, then personalizing the questions, e.g. “Ms A gave her father a birthday present. What (do you think) she gave him? [Then…] Do you give your father a birthday present? What?” etc
  4. The key to TPRS is personalization. In fact, I’m starting to think that personalization is the key to good/successful teaching.
  5. In one class today, I did a 15-minute spiel on pronunciation, because  a colleague who co-teaches that class had asked me to (and she said students had asked her). It was boring. I completely lost a key “barometer” student (who actually may not be that low in ability, but he’s only interested in drawing manga): he just slept through the whole thing, and I could not really draw him back in successfully even after I reverted to TPRS after the pronunciation lecture and practice.
  6. Trying to teach pronunciation, or a grammar point does not work well because it’s hard to get students interested in it. If they are not interested, they do not respond, and that gives me less input to work with; plus I don’t know if they understand or not.
  7. Talking about students themselves works well. Referring to things they did or said works well.
  8. I teach two different levels of freshmen. The higher level need (obviously) more challenging input, and at first that was difficult for me: I could not think on my feet quickly enough to come up with only slightly more complex sentence structures. After a while they got a bit bored with the “yes/no” questions or the easy choices.  It took me a while before I was able to spontaneously create complex (i.e. with subordinate clauses) questions. Even now, it’s hard for me to “change gears”.
  9. Class prep time is waaaaay down: 5-10 mins, usually just before class, skimming through their free writing for tidbits of personal information I can use. This in itself is a godsend.
  10. Ben Slavic’s books and blog have been a great help. I highly recommend them. Them and Blaine Ray’s Fluency through TPR Storytelling.
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TPRS – how to develop fluency in EFL students by storytelling

Children at the World Storytelling Day Event
Image by Pratham Books via Flickr

My college EFL students were not improving in either confidence or fluency.  Worse, some who’d been paying attention were tuning out, and the ones that had tuned out already were not tuning back in. It was time for a change. But to what?

Listening to  AJ’s materials, I’d started thinking about how important it was to me that my students develop fluency. Had I given up on that? From hints dropped by AJ, I found out about TPRS, and ordered Blaine Ray‘s Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. I decided to give it a whirl.

I went with a “picture story”, 6 frames illustrating a simple story, with no dialogue or verbal cues or input. I gave them the pictures. I started asking questions. After ringing the changes and asking about a zillion questions, I started feeling drained: it had been a long time since I had done this kind of direct teaching – just me and their faces. It must be about the end of the class by now, eh? 90 minutes nearly up? Let’s look at my watch. 15 minutes?!?!?!

Students were looking surreptitiously at their watches, getting restless. I abandoned my story and returned, gratefully, to the textbook, “Right, page 37…..”

The next class went slightly better. This time, I lasted 30 minutes. Ok, 20.  Man! This is hard work!

That was last week. I tried the technique again in every “Oral English” class I have. It remained hard work, and I needed a backup for when I ran dry.

Two things kept me going: 1) some flashes of humour –  peals of laughter, and 2) because I’d decided that fluency was important for me and for my students.

The weekend.  I discovered Ben Slavic’s website, and downloaded everything I could find, including the free samples from his two books, TPRS in a year! and PQA in a Wink! Both books were not only full of practical ideas and very helpful to a beginner like me, but they were both very encouraging and laced with an infectious humour. I’ll just pick out two quotes that stood our for me. They’re not representative, and they won’t give you an idea of what TPRS is. For that, you’ll have to do your own homework.

“It’s not that I didn’t understand TPRS….

I just didn’t understand personalization!”

– Jennifer Wilczewski

It is true that educators should feel free to choose what methods they want for their students, but not at the expense of the students.

To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:  “If you want someone to build a boat, don’t tell them to gather wood, and assign them other tasks and work. Instead, teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.”

Armed with some knowledge and confidence, I tried TPRS again this week:

  • Week 1: max. time 20 minutes.
  • Week 2: max. time, 1 hour 15 minutes. I barely paused, never felt I’d run out of ideas, used humour and personalized the material easily because I understood that THAT was what was important, not “getting through the story”, and when I felt a lull, or a momentary slackness in the sails, so to speak, I only had to glance at my picture story to pick up the thread.  I had a blast, and I think the students did, too.

One boy in particular stood out: he’s a talker, but not the best English-speaker in the group by any means. He just likes talking to people. He blurts things out (quite uncommon in Japan where everyone is trained to wait their turn or wait until they are called on by the instructor). He hates writing and usually chats with his neighbours, flirts with the ladies, jokes, excuses himself to the bathroom, etc, when things get too boring for him. Using TPRS, he became the star. He was the first to grasp that I welcomed outrageous answers. His answer to my question, “How do you come to school?” was “Air Force One“. This became a running joke in the class. We learned the word “battery” and he had a big paper bag on his desk. I asked him what was inside; the battery for his Air Force One, maybe? “No! It’s my gasoline!” (The picture story was about a car that runs out of gas.)

Not all the students are responding when I ask questions, and I cannot tell when that is because they do not understand, and when that is their cultural training kicking in. And one girl resolutely refused to participate except when I addressed question directly at her. I still cannot tell if she thinks this is just beneath her, or if she lacks confidence and often does not understand but does not like to admit it.

I identified some “barometer” students, and that was very helpful. Looking at their faces helped me to gauge the speed of my talking. I was surprised to discover that I often speak too quickly. When I slowed down (and I was never talking at natural speed), comprehension often jumped to 100%.

Last week, I was reading everything I could about how to adapt a textbook to TPRS and being discouraged to read that basically, I shouldn’t. Now, I feel I will simply jettison the textbook for 2/3 of class time. I want to focus on helping students develop fluency, and through that, confidence. But above all, I want to bring play back into my teaching. This week,  I got a taste of how much fun, and how easy, that can be.

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Image by …storrao… via Flickr

I am reading everything I can find about TPRS.

I recently got Blaine Ray‘s Fluency Through TPR Storytelling, and have been reading it each night until I fall asleep.

Today, I got hooked on Ben Slavic’s page. Yesterday, I downloaded all the handouts, docs, posters, everything that wasn’t nailed down. I spent the early hours of this morning reading them until I fell asleep. I’m doing the same today.

I want to credit AJ Hoge for turning me onto TPRS. He mentioned it on an old blog he had years ago, when he was teaching English in a university in Thailand, I believe. He wrote a bit more about it after he returned to the States. I didn’t investigate at the time. It was only when I happened across AJ’s most recent site that I felt an urge to find out more about this method.

What prompted me to do so was a few things that AJ said in a video or somewhere on his blog. They were very similar to what Ben Slavic wrote here: Professionally sad.

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The new autonoblogger

This blog started as a log of my attempts to introduce my students to the joys of autonomous i.e. self-directed language-learning. Basically, it’s the story of one failure after another since I started in 2005.

This blog ground to a halt in October 2007: I’d run out of steam, of ideas. I’d run into a wall.

I resurrected it in October 2009, mainly to learn how to import a Blogger blog into WordPress and to give autonblogger it’s own domain.

I’ll blog about new directions  I’m taking in teaching English, which may take me away from “autonomy” or self-directed learning, but I’m keeping the “Autonoblogger” name ‘cos I like it.

A couple of years ago, I began exploring something called The Immediate Method. Not a quick way to get pregnant, but an EFL approach developed by French teachers in Japan to have their students start using new structures and vocab as soon as possible by “testing” them almost immediately, i.e. by having conversations with students on themes or topics that involve using the structures and vocab that were introduced earlier in that lesson.

Having conversations with students is fun: I get to know them a little more personally. Students also enjoy talking to me personally – it’s one reason why they take an “Oral English” class (the other reason is because the class is compulsory!).

But. My students weren’t improving. They were not becoming more fluent. They were not developing confidence in their speaking. Some of them were not practising the structures and vocab enough (or at all). While I was having conversations with students, I was not “teaching” them or monitoring them. Although I did assign them work to do (“Write your own conversation based on the model in the textbook, and practice it”; “If you’ve finished your conversation test, do the grammar exercises on page….”), some did not do it.

Then I discovered TPRS.

(to be continued)

Phonics or… creativity?

I just re-discovered, a British website (and actual TV programme?) that hosts a host of information about teachers and teaching in British schools. Obviously most of the content is going to be of more interest to people who actually live and teach in Britain, than to people who don’t (like me), but I enjoyed this 45-minute video by children’s author Michael Rosen from the programme School Matters on the subject of phonics and the teaching of reading. Apparently, phonics is now the British government’s official teaching-to-read method. Michael Rosen, though, is in the “whole word” camp. He visits a number of schools and interviews different people, teachers and researchers and people in government. It’s a very well made video. Rosen’s purpose is to examine whether phonics and testing stifles children’s (and teacher’s) creativity.

I don’t think the whole-word argument is convincingly made in this video, and certainly the question of whether it really is an either-or argument goes begging through the entire 45 minutes. Equally unasked is the question of why the government needs to decide on a single approach at all, and then mandate that for the whole country.

Here’s the video blurb:

Author Michael Rosen questions whether the current political enthusiasm for synthetic phonics, designated literacy hours, and league tables is turning off young readers.

Rosen examines the evidence for claims that these devices have led to higher literacy standards, and finds it wanting. Unlike many critics, he suggests ways of encouraging reading, and he’s not afraid of advocating poetry, often one of the most difficult and frightening tasks facing both teachers and their classes.

In his journey to discovering ways of improving literacy Rosen hears from heads, literacy experts, teachers and academics and even Jim Rose; the man whom he holds principally responsible for the imposition of synthetic phonics throughout the land.