Is it ok for teachers to use corporal punishment? Discuss.

Schoolboy receiving bare bottom birching, from...
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I left the following comment on a blog entry about corporal punishment in (UK) schools (I’ve reposted it here so that I can add stuff and edit the writing).

A succinct summary, with rebuttals, of the various arguments against corporal punishment. The non-aggression axiom provides a principled argument to the responses which blog-author OldAndrew lists as being often made against corporal punishment:
1) that it is wrong in principle to harm students: it is legitimate to use force in retaliation or in self-defence (I would take “retaliation” to include the notion of punishment);
2) the pacifist objection: corporal punishment is wrong because it is violence: see 1);
3) that corporal punishment didn’t work: the notion that “force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use” supports OldAndrew’s point that Punishment serves not to eliminate sin but to increase justice by inflicting a penalty on those who deserve it.

In addition, the non-aggression axiom would free teachers to use physical force in self-defence and/or in retaliation, i.e. punishment, an autonomy that seems to me sorely needed (and not just in schools, I might add): even acts of self-defence are likely to see a teacher end up in court and fired.

Some will no doubt argue that this would open the flood gates to abuse of the sanction. OldAndrew has already replied to this argument. I would only add that, if parents disagree with the school’s policies they should be free to not send their children there.

Photo by BaboMike on Flickr
Photo by BaboMike on Flickr

In Japanese public high schools, corporal punishment is allowed, though there is quite a lot of debate about this. Corporal punishment is traditionally the responsibility of the P.E. teachers. They are usually big and tough, accustomed to physical contact and not so easily intimidated by hulking high-schooling boys. I’ve seen such teachers cuff students around the head, either with their bare hands or with clipboards. Other punishment is usually being made to kneel in seiza (see photo), sometimes with arms held aloft for long periods; or push ups, or laps around the sports ground. I think straps, canes, etc., are banned.The only book in English that I have read that discusses punishment in Japanese schools in any detail is The Japanese High School by Shoko Yoneyama. She discusses it in the context of bullying and other violence in schools. She mentions some of the spartan school rules, such as no dyed hair, length of hair (for boys and girls) specified down to the millimetre, colour and size of bags, etc., and punishment for being late. Almost all Japanese schools have a heavy main gate that slides on wheels and looks  like this:

Photo by Junicci on Flickr

Teachers stand by the gate and greet students in the morning, and then close the gate when the bell rings. As you can imagine, there’s sometimes a rush of students squeezing in at the last minute before the gate closes completely. In one infamous incident, an overzealous, careless teacher squashed a girl to death, pinning her between the gate and the wall.

Elementary school gate, Japan
Photo by ykanazawa 1999 on Flickr

The incident was national news, and Yoneyama mentions it in her book as an example of violence from adults to students that, in her opinion, is part of a pattern of violence and power-plays that is then played out by students on other students in bullying. Yoneyama points out that in many cases of bullying, a group of bullies (the lone bully is hardly found in collectivist Japan!) picks on someone for “standing out” in some way, such as having a bag that is not quite the regulation colour, or hair not quite the regulation length. Yoneyama’s point was that children bully others in exactly the same ways that they are “bullied” by the adults in school.

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Needs

Source: Fraser Institute
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Here is a comment I posted to a discussion about Needs, a blog post at Scenes from the Battleground. I suggest you read the original Needs article first. It will hopefully make the following more intelligible.

Update: I have edited this slightly (tho it is still too long and wordy) after reflecting on a comment left by OldAndrew.

**************************

A most interesting and provocative post, with lots of frank-bordering-on-the-plain-rude responses in the comments. I shall try to enter into the spirit of things.

In your original article, you fail to make several, crucial, distinctions; which omissions weaken your argument, whereas inclusion would strengthen it.

1) You fail to distinguish personal needs from social ones; i.e. personal, private needs (such as for food, sleep, sex, etc) which are and should be met by the individual him/herself, on the one hand, and needs which can and should be met by others, e.g. the educational institutions, on the other.
You write, we have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet. It is indeed difficult, so all the more reason to bear in mind the distinction between personal and non-personal needs. Failure to keep, or perhaps make, this distinction leads you to set up straw men, such as Are we really obliged to make all students happy and psychologically healthy? (“We” here presumably meaning schoolteachers.) Who is suggesting you are so obliged? However, students are people and need to be happy and psychologically healthy. It does not necessarily follow that schoolteachers are responsible for meeting this need. Presumably, you have heard people make this assertion. They are wrong, and need to have their faulty logic pointed out to them (but please see also the point below about the hierarchy of needs).

2) You fail to distinguish between needs and wants: (quoting P.S. Wilson) a young bully, for example, from his point of view may ‘need’ to find victims. Plainly this is a ‘need’ which, though identifiable, should not be met.
This is not a need. A bully may want to find victims, but a want is not a need. Although I am quoting Wilson, not you, nowhere in your post do you make this rather crucial distinction. That omission weakens your argument – “needs” implies some kind of obligation or necessity for someone to do something about it – because your opponents’ argument (that if something is a need, that implies a moral duty to meet it) is seriously weakened once this distinction is made plain.

3) I have discussed the three main explanations given as to why children are blameless for their behaviour.
The three you list are, in my experience, given as explanations for behaviour. An explanation for behaviour is not the same as an excuse for bad behaviour, nor is it a reason not to blame or not to punish. Folks who use these explanations as reasons why children (or adults) should not be blamed or punished for bad behaviour, are failing to make this crucial distinction and guilty of sloppy thinking. An explanation for behaviour (bad or not) does not imply blamelessness; the one does not logically follow from the other.
It seems to be a common human need to explain behaviour. This is not the same thing as explaining away behaviour. Why don’t you point out this distinction to your opponents and detractors? It would seriously weaken their argument, and strengthen yours.

4) You fail to show you are aware of the significance of Maslow’s Theory, A Hierarchy of Needs (the key word is “hierarchy”, it’s right there in the title; that’s a hint. Maslow (as I recall) stated that basic needs must be met first, before higher needs can be attended to. Your apparent ignorance of this key fact, combined with your failure to make the above 3 distinctions, leads you to make the hilarious statement, “Maslow has helpfully included sex as a basic need, a fact forgotten by those who would quote him in an educational context, as the obvious implication would involve turning schools into brothels.” Who is implying this? Only you! Only someone who fails to distinguish between private, personal needs (e.g., sex), and social ones, i.e. needs that should be met by, e.g., an educational institution, could make such a suggestion. Only someone who fails to distinguish clearly that a need does not imply a moral duty to fulfill it, could make such a ludicrous suggestion. In addition, only someone who fails to appreciate the significance of “hierarchy” in “hierarchy of needs”, and someone who fails to distinguish between an explanation for behaviour and an excuse for behaviour, could make such a statement. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is relevant to teachers, I would suggest, because they have the problem of identifying what counts as a need and in particular which needs educational institutions have an obligation to meet.

if it is not possible to identify what needs we should be meeting then we can’t possibly declare that needs haven’t been met. Identifying needs that an educational institution should meet is greatly helped by distinguishing between needs and wants, between personal, private needs and others, and between basic versus higher needs.

Finally, students are people and have emotional needs which must be met. One such need is for attention. For a baby, attention or lack of it means the difference between life and death, because a baby cannot feed itself. Some children learn that a sure-fire way to get attention is to do something naughty. This puts the adult, who is aware of this, in a dilemma when considering how to deal with the bad behaviour: paying attention to the behaviour merely re-inforces it, yet not paying attention to it may encourage the behaviour, a) because the student thinks they can get away with it, and b) because the person’s need for attention is still unsatisfied.

The knowledge that emotional needs are basic needs, and it can be useful to bear in mind that one key emotional need, particularly with young children (but not limited to them)  is attention. It helps satisfy the teacher’s/parent’s/adult’s need for explanation for behaviour. Explanation for behaviour is useful when deciding how to respond. But it does not excuse bad behaviour. (Did I already mention that?)

Now imagine we accepted the belief that meeting this need was not, a moral duty, or an act of charity, but a method of treating the underlying cause of poor behaviour. We would cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved.
A very good point. And your final paragraph is particularly powerful.

For the record, I agree with OldAndrew. People who fail to distinguish between needs and wants, who bundle human behaviour up into all-encompassing “needs”, then further simply assume (without justification or explanation) that some or all of these “needs” must be met (“because they’re needs!”) by the educational institution generally and by teachers in particular – such people are using sloppy thinking, faulty logic, and they should be exposed without mercy and as soon as possible, because their ideology is seriously damaging.

I don’t live in the UK so I have no idea how dominant the ideology is which OldAndrew is arguing against. Judging from his blog, it sounds like he (and a handful of other crazies) are the only dissenters. Is there a big debate going on about this? Or is he, in fact, a minority of one?

Suggested further reading: Go For It! by Dr. Irene Kassorla;
How To Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk, by Faber & Mazlish;
anything by Dr. Haim Ginott

By the way, I usually vet the related articles listed below by Zemanta. Not all of them are relevant, and of those that are, not all are interesting or well written. This one is particularly interesting.

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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.

AND,

* 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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What does dictation evaluate?

I have a question about dictation. I’ve been looking at various rubrics that Susie Gross and Jason Fritze  have created to evaluate students, and I wanted to come up with my own that I could show to my department colleagues. I want to win them over to the idea of making fluency the main objective of our language classes.

So I made up my own rubric for the Speaking classes I teach, then went to the teachers who “teach” listening and asked them how they evaluate their students. Two of them said they have students do dictation, but they were unable to tell me exactly what dictation assesses. Accuracy in spelling, perhaps, but what’s that got to do with listening?

Both teachers have students do listening clozes, but again they were vague as to exactly what this evaluates.

It seems the listening teachers are focused on micro listening skills, at the word level, and they’re missing THE big picture – comprehension. (Excuse me while I gnash my teeth.) UNLESS! dictation (and/or listening cloze exercises) actually test comprehension.

What do you think? What does dictation tell you about a student’s language ability? I realize that many TPRS teachers may not, in fact probably don’t, use dictation to evaluate students, but rather as yet another way to provide repeated CI, as indeed I do.

I’d like to think  my colleagues have sat down and thought about exactly how dictation evaluates comprehension: that they are not  just giving dictation because, well, that’s what listening teachers do.

Another colleague, thinking off the top of his head, decided that dictation does not evaluate comprehension because you could write down what you think you are hearing without understanding it. Also, how could you tell from a correct dictation, that the student understood the meaning? You couldn’t.

Instead of giving dictation, fill-in-the-blanks and other tests that just test micro-listening skills (i.e. at the word level), teachers could be giving lots of comprehensible input and repetition.

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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TPRS and Krashen’s theories of SLA

TPRS was developed by Blaine Ray who was “converted” when he discovered James Asher’s TPR – Total Physical Response – method of teaching a second (or foreign) language.  Then he found students got bored with commands after a while, so he started telling stories and asking students for input on the details of the stories, and found it worked and was fun, and called it TPR Storytelling. Well, it’s not really Total Physical Response, and actually Ray’s since changed the name so that “TPRS” now stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. It was only later that Ray (and others) came across Krashen’s theories of second language acquisition, and found therein lots of support for what they were doing, as well as pointers for improvement.

Krashen is known for the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the input hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, the affective filter, and the natural order hypothesis (this last is not Krashen’s own hypothesis, and Wikipedia has removed the natural order hypothesis page; for details, see order of acquisition).

Acquisition-learning: “learning”, according to Krashen, is explicit learning about the target language: grammar explanation, for example, and associated exercises and worksheets. Acquisition, he posits, is a mysterious activity that requires a great deal of comprehensible input.

The input hypothesis says that people learn a second or foreign language the same way we learn our first language: by being exposed to (through listening and/or reading) massive amounts of comprehensible input, and not thanks to lots of explanations about how the language works. In other words, Krashen says that language is essentially acquired, not learned.

Even if you accept this, and many don’t, the question for a language teacher is, how to provide the massive amounts of comprehensible input that is required? I accepted the hypothesis, as it seemed to match how I had learned French, English and German and later, Japanese. However, I didn’t see a practicable way to provide the input in class, the same reaction that Susan Gross had, who later became one of the stars of the TPRS firmament. I then got interested in self-access centres and teaching students to be more autonomous because I realized that a) learners do need much more input than can be provided in class, and b) they need to go out and get it on their own.

Well, TPRS seems to go a long way to solve the problem: it provides a great deal of comprehensible input in class, and it also has developed a high standard for comprehension: everyone in the class should understand everything that is said in the foreign/second language. And they’ve developed simple tools to enable a teacher to at least aim for this.

“Comprehension precedes production” says Krashen’s theory. Well, TPRS does not require students to produce much language at least at the beginning (although you can if you want: you just need to tweak the questions). This was a relief, because I had found that students were not producing correct language and they weren’t getting any closer to it. They seemed to have hit a wall.

In fact, Krashen’s theory goes further and explains what happens if you force production too early (before language is properly acquired). Krashen also theorized that grammar is acquired in a natural order, that this order is pretty much the same for children regardless of language or culture, and that it cannot be changed by instruction.

What happens when you force production too soon? The result is garbage. I see this all the time with my writing students. Many of them expect me to correct their writing with a red pen, which I have not done. One simple reason is that their English is so screwed that I do not know where to begin. They need to go back to basics. I had started with an ambitious program of reviewing the rules of written English, starting with basic punctuation and the simple sentence. However, although they understood the explanations, they still weren’t able to write correct, simple sentences.

“Acquisition activities are central, though some Monitoring may be useful for some people sometimes”. Krashen posits that “learning” develops the Monitor, the “editor in the head” as it were, and that that is useful and helpful for more advanced learners, but it is death for the beginners, because it inhibits them production and makes them overly concerned with avoiding mistakes and producing correct forms. The cost is a serious lack of fluency.

Krashen’s hypothesis explains why learners produce garbage, even after “learning” the language for years: these students have not acquired the basics of English. They have been given too much explanations, they have “learned” too much and not acquired enough. In addition, they have been asked to produce before they are ready. In that case, they either rely on parroting or memorization, or they rely on their native language’s grammar and syntax (or, in the case of my writing students in the computer lab, they rely on machine translation, which produces garbage of an even higher order than they would themselves).

In my experiments this past month with TPRS, I’ve been using very basic, very simple grammar: the present tense, the past tense, first, second and third person verb forms. I have noticed that, even after 20 or so repetitions of “third-person ‘s'”, or using the past tense when telling a story, when I ask students for short phrases that require a subject and a verb, they still don’t use the correct form. OK, you’re thinking: 20 repetitions isn’t much. Yeah, but I’m getting the same results even after 4 weeks of 3 hours per week.

After reading Krashen’s theories, and what other TPRS teachers do, I’ve stopped requiring my students to produce correct language; I’ve also stopped correcting them, except by repeating correctly what they try to say. I’m deliberately taking the pressure off them to produce correct language. We’ll get to that later. At the moment, I’m focusing on what I now believe to be the key ingredients: personalization (because many of them have been turned off classroom learning) and lots and lots and lots of comprehensible input.

I tried TPRS with a 2nd-year class for the first time last Friday. Because they were 2nd-years, I figured I should try and make it more challenging: I threw in complex sentences like “Did you have breakfast before you got dressed, or after?” Boy, that threw them (I didn’t ask it right off the bat, of course, I built up to it, but even so, the result was a palpable silence: it was obvious I’d run into a complete wall of incomprehension).  No. Even 2nd-years still need what they obviously have not had enough of: comprehensible input and lots of repetition.

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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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A Japan-based native-speaking English uni teacher rambles about teaching EFL at university


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