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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