By Anny Ewing, Lower School Spanish Teacher
With generous assistance from the Professional Development Committee, I attended two conferences for language teachers in July: iFLT and NTPRS.
The first was the second bi-annual conference of the International Forum on Language Teaching – iFLT ( http://ifltconference.org
), in Breckenridge, CO. The conference focused on strategies for Teaching with Comprehensible Input (TCI), featuring daily Learning Labs in the morning, and workshops on specific techniques in the afternoon.
The morning sessions allowed participants to view master teachers teaching real children in a real classroom situation, using TPR
(Total Physical Response), TPRS
(Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), and other TCI strategies, then debrief the teachers after the two-hour classes ended. We ate lunch the first day as a group (150+), so we could enjoy the keynote speech given by SLA (second language acquisition) theorist and expert Stephen Krashen. Dr. Krashen’s work ranges from serious (e.g. meticulous research on the effects of free voluntary reading on the mastery of spelling and grammar) to capricious (e.g. papers on the communication skills of aliens as evidenced by first-hand accounts of alien abductees), and his talks always follow a similar trajectory. He was insightful, thought-provoking, and delightful!At lunch on the other two days, a group of 12-15 FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) teachers got together to share concerns and strategies for using TCI at the elementary levels. It was reassuring to learn that others face the same challenges I do, of limited contact time with large numbers of students and multiple preparations. I learned from seasoned TPRS FLES teachers that in classes such as mine, which meet twice a week, I should aim for mastery of 20-25 structures a year. What a relief! I had been feeling a failure for not teaching 3 structures a week!
Afternoon sessions varied from one teacher’s smorgasbord of strategies for managing elementary aged students; to the grandmother of TPR, Berty Segal Cook, giving a fast-paced, masterful demonstration in Yiddish, while gasping for breath at Breckenridge’s 9,000 ft altitude. There was also a coaching room, where any teacher could stop and try out new skills in front of trained coaches, and get pointers and instruction on improving our technique.
The conference ended on Thursday, allowing me two days to go hiking in the Rockies with my husband Larry (who had been hiking all week while I was in sessions) before putting him on a plane home and putting myself on a plane to Las Vegas, for the National TPRS Conference.
In Vegas, I attended a one-day coaching workshop, where I learned strategies for coaching other teachers on various skills of TPRS/TCI (Blaine Ray, the originator of TPRS does not like to refer to it as a ‘methodology’; he prefers to describe it as a set of skills or strategies that support a comprehension based theory of language learning.) It was a brilliantly planned workshop, where seasoned coaches first instructed us in a particular skill, then had small groups alternate roles as teacher, students, and coach, with guidance from a super-coach. One of the most helpful stations to me was on Going S-L-O-W-L-Y, where the super-coach provided a set of index cards that the coach-in-training could refer to while coaching the teacher. These included the following strategies, which help teachers pace their speaking in the target language so as to allow students to process and understand what they hear:Teach to the eyes (look at each student as you’re talking and see what you can read in their eyes. Are they engaged? Do they understand?)
(give a thumbs up, a high-five, a big smile to someone who has taken a risk and responded with understanding)
Pause and think
(pretend you’re pondering your next move, while actually allowing a moment to let the language sink in)
Pause and point
(use props, pictures, words on the board, to point while letting the spoken words register)
Speak s l o w l y
(move around the room, allowing time for students to process while also making sure you are physically close to every student at some point in the class.)
(help students answer, while providing more comprehensible input, by offering options separated by a long, drawn out X…or….Y?)
Do comprehension checks
(check for understanding with a spot translation, or “What does X mean?” or “How do you say Y?”, or asking a quick set of T/F questions, or having students self-report by holding up 1 to 5 fingers, where 5 means ‘I understand every word’ and 1 means ‘I didn’t get most of that’.)I keep my set of index cards handy, in case I run out of strategies in my classroom and need a quick reminder of something new to try.
For the rest of the week we attended four mornings of skill-based workshops and four afternoons of elective sessions on a variety of topics. Having done the coaching workshop on Sunday, I was ready for more in-depth practice on the main skills of TPRS:
1) Comprehension Checks
2) Going SLOWLY
3) Contrastive Grammar
4) Co-Building a Story with Your Students
5) Personalized Question and Answer
6) Verifying Details and Reporting to the Class
7) Embedded Reading
None of this was new to me, but I always benefit from the change in perspective provided by different presenters, and by sharing the experience with different participants. In the afternoon sessions, I sought insights about telling jokes, brain-friendly language instruction, scaffolding literacy, and reading as an added source of comprehensible input.
This year I got to know a Colorado HS Spanish teacher who writes novels for the TPRS
classroom. I had purchased several of her books at previous conferences, but had not yet tried them with my lower school classes. She mentioned that she was trying to get one of her Spanish novels
translated into French. I said I’d be happy to do it. We negotiated back and forth through the rest of the conference, during which I translated one chapter for her to review, and by the time I came home, we had an agreement. I worked on the novel for the next couple of weeks. Through daily conversations with the author, I learned a tremendous amount about how to develop a compelling storyline while maintaining simple, repetitive, comprehensible language. The final novel in French contains fewer than 150 new words of French, yet by using cognates and lots of repetition to reinforce known structures, it succeeds in making early 1st year French students feel successful and engaged. At the same time, it tells about an important moment in history (the build-up to WWII) and reveals some interesting aspects of French art and culture (the Paris International Expo of 1937, bullfighting in Arles, Picasso in Antibes). I’m looking forward to future projects with authors and maybe even writing my own TPRS novels in French and Spanish.
The benefit of these conferences is always to remind me that there are hundreds of teachers following a similar path, finding ways to help every student experience personal success in learning a second language. I have an ever-increasing network of colleagues at a distance who are happy to share, discuss, and advise through listservs, blogs and email. Eighteen of us from the Philadelphia area got together in November for a day of sharing ideas and coaching
each other in key practices of TCI. Many more were brought together at ACTFL
, where TPRS sessions
were packed to overflowing and the TPRS Publishing
booths saw a steady flow of traffic from teachers seeking materials and methods to help students achieve proficiency through reading and storytelling. I was pleased to see that in two of the more general sessions– one on research and one on training the next generation of teachers– TCI and TPRS were raised up as important strategies to include in defining best practices.
Since ACTFL, I have been in active contact with several area teachers, working to plan a next encounter. A first-year HS French teacher from Christiana, DE reached out to me from the moretprs list and we now meet weekly to discuss ideas that benefit both of our teaching. Next week we hope to Skype in another French teacher from South Jersey.
Of course, the true benefit of conferences, workshops, and sharing with colleagues is revealed in the classroom. I am amazed at what my students can do when confronted with a compelling story and compelling characters. We have started reading novels in both 3rd and 5th grades. In 4th grade we are building a story that may be the basis of a future novel. Students pick up new language more readily when it is embedded in a comprehensible context in the middle of a great story. I still have a lot to learn about pacing and going s-l-o-w-l-y without it seeming slow, but I learn new tricks every day, and my students bring great good will and enthusiasm to the enterprise.