Details from Day 1 at the Living Latin in New York conference at Fordham University presented by the Paideia Institute.
As I am sure you have noted by now, I have been slowly converting my Latin practice into an “active” Latin teaching practice and reforming from my initial grammar-based training. [Side note: the moniker of “active” Latin needs some reformation and that is a theme that did emerge at the conference – more on that in future post.] While making this journey, I have been sorting through various terminology and getting familiar with the theory behind it all. One of the things that emerged was this TPRS abbreviation and it surely confused me from the TPR distinction. Well, I think I am coming to grips with it but hopefully I can make it a bit clearer after watching Anna Conser’s presentation.
TPRS is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. The key word here is proficiency as we are trying to develop our students to be proficient with the target language. This is not something new but as a theory in of itself, it is important to grasp because it will change the way you assess your student work and will also change the way you teach. Normally, we teach “stuff” i.e. grammar and we teach our students to recognize it, memorize it, regurgitate it, and produce it. There is a lot of research that indicates that this is an incomplete way to teach a language – you didn’t learn your mother tongue that way and, if you are proficient in a second language, you probably didn’t arrive there in this manner either. The ACTFL has a proficiency rubric that really paints the picture more vividly. Magister P also has excellent ideas found here and here.
TPR, on the other hand, is Total Physical Response. This means that a word can be taught not simply by supplying the mother-tongued translation, but more effectively through a gesture. For example, tell your students “surgite” and watch them stand. Then tell them to “sedēte” and watch them sit. Do it enough times and it gets embedded in their minds through the act. In other words, you may use TPR as a strategy to introduce words in TPRS, but you wouldn’t use TPRS to introduce new words, per se.
Back to TPRS. One of the better ways to gain better insight is to have someone teach you a language you don’t know using it. You get to really feel it. So, I attended Anna Conser’s TPRS in ancient Greek, not because I didn’t know it (well, I am rusty) but because I wanted to see if I was doing it “right” myself with Latin.
She laid out how TPRS is effective – it is based on comprehensible input, repetition, and through creating engagement. The words should not be unfamiliar to your students – the messages need to be comprehensible. The challenge is to get in those reps – this could elicit boredom as the mind craves novelty and that would cut down on engagement. How is that achieved? Circling or asking questions of your students.
We started with a couple basic phrases (ναι = yes and ουχι = no). This assisted us in the circling phase as Conser would ask us yes/no questions to affirm what we are hearing. She also established a call in addition to these responses so that we would be invited to become aware of a “fact” in the story (‘ο μαθηται = oh, students!). She would establish the fact and we would respond with “oooooh!”.
Conser also invited two student actors up so that there could be more opportunity for personalization and repetition as the student actors could be asked questions which allowed us to hear the phrases and structures again without getting overly repetitive. When she asked the student actors, they would also have to respond in complete sentences and not just chorally – this made sure everyone was paying attention.
As she went along, she introduced vocabulary via a presentation so that students could follow along and get a visual of the vocabulary they were using. This helped establish meaning, something crucial for CI (comprehensible input) and helped create the inclusive environment that you want in a language class to reduce that dreaded “affective filter” (negative feelings that prohibit and limit language acquisition).
Finally, the whole story was projected and read aloud as a way of repeating the narrative that was developed on the spot with the student actors. Again, it is TPRS – teaching PROFICIENCY through READING and STORYTELLING. This follows that wonderful mantra Grant Boulanger developed about the order in which we should expose students to languages: listen, read, write, and speak. We often leapfrog that order and this is where we could become more efficient.
I did feel a rekindling of my ancient Greek knowledge come back and I was surprised at how much I actually remembered and understood but more importantly, how much was retained. Conser offered a great example of what TPRS looks like and illustrated that it could also be applied to a complex classical language like Greek. She noted that for most of her nouns she used neuters to avoid dealing with declensions, at least initially. The research also shows that students are not consciously aware of endings anyway.