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TPRS® 101, Step 2: Understand the goal of a TPRS®/CI lesson

May 12, 2015

This is the second post in the series "TPRS® 101: Teaching Proficiency is Really Simple". Click here to read other posts in the series.


Once you have deciphered the acronyms ‘TPRS®’, ‘CI’, and ‘TCI’, the only thing that I’d recommend doing before heading off to watch a teacher demonstrate a TPRS® lesson is to understand the goal that the teacher will attempt to achieve.

The main goal of a TPRS® lesson (or any CI lesson, for that matter) is to provide many repetitions of the target structures, or Core Vocabulary terms. Core Vocabulary terms are single words or phrases that are important to the message that you are trying to communicate to your students (the story, the song, the conversation, etc.) and repetitions are instances that a word or phrase is received and understood by the students (heard or read and understood).

So, if the word “habla” (speaks) is a Core Vocabulary word in your conversation–for example, you're trying to figure out what language your students speak at home–and you say it 20 times in class and students read it 6 times in a paragraph-long reading, you’ve provided 26 ‘repetitions’ of the Core Vocabulary term ‘habla’. This might sound like a lot, but actually it is nowhere near enough! TPRS®/CI teachers want to provide as many as 75+ (more is always better!) repetitions of a Core Vocabulary word in any given class period. A Core Vocabulary term could be a single word, like 'habla' (talks), or it could be a phrase, like 'quieres salir conmigo' (do you want to go out with me). We'll talk more about Core Vocabulary (which I previously called Target Structures) when we break down a TPRS® lesson.

Why so many repetitions?

Our goal is not for students to memorize (‘learn’) the Core Vocabulary terms (unfamiliar, important vocabulary words and phrases that students need in order to understand the story/lesson); rather, our goal is for students to acquire them; to internalize them. This might sound like a subtle play on words, but the difference is quite significant. We never expect that our students will acquire (internalize) a Core Vocabulary word by the end of a lesson; however, we hope that they will be closer to acquiring it at the end of the day than when we began the lesson. The repetitions help students to process the language that they are hearing and to internalize the individual words and patterns.

Acquisition versus learning

Learning is a process of which we are conscious: there is a goal and we try to reach it. When we try to memorize structures or learn grammatical patterns, it takes effort! We work strategically toward our goal, employing strategies that we have picked up over the years.

Acquisition, on the other hand, is something that just kind of happens--it takes very little effort, and by and large we don’t even realize that it is happening. If you have children or are around young children, think about how they learn language: the majority of their language is ‘acquired’ effortlessly as they go about their lives and receive input from adults, older children, and media. The adults around them might be putting great effort into their children’s language acquisition by repeating and explaining new words, but the children themselves are blissfully unaware of the fact that their parents are trying to stuff their brains with new vocabulary.

Case in point, I was trying to explain to my three year old that a family friend is a chiropractor. For a couple days, every time that I talked about this friend, I said “so-and-so is a chiropractor. A chiropractor is a kind of a doctor. Doctor so-and-so is a chiropractor. A chiropractor is a doctor that helps our bones and muscles and joints. Doctor so-and-so is not a dentist, Dentist such-and-such is a dentist. Dentists help our teeth. Chiropractors help our bones and muscles and joints. Doctor so-and-so is a chiropractor...” All the while, Ellis just listened and nodded and said, “mm-hm” and asked about the nerf guns that are at Doctor so-and-so’s house. Well, after a couple days of this, Ellis started talking about how Doctor so-and-so is a chiropractor and he helps our bones and muscles and joints and he has nerf guns at his house. The word ‘chiropractor’ is now part of Ellis’ vocabulary, and he put ZERO effort into it. (Not me! I worked hard for that one!) He acquired it effortlessly because he likes to talk about our friend and our friend’s nerf guns. Acquiring the word ‘chiropractor’ was a by-product of his engagement in our conversation. Which brings us to the second, equally important goal of a TPRS®/CI lesson: engagement.

Engagement is a must

Our students are not dumb. They know that the goal of every lesson is to acquire the structures that we list on the board at the beginning of the period; in fact, we tell them that that is the goal. So how do we keep them from sitting in their seats and trying to memorize those terms, which is largely ineffective, and instead sitting back and allowing themselves to acquire the terms effortlessly? We make our classes so dang interesting that the students are distracted from the means and mesmerized by the message, that’s how! We want them to be so engaged in the content of what we are discussing that they forget that they are in a language class using terms that they don’t really know that well just yet. In the above example, I was saying “chiropractor-chiropractor-chiropractor”, but my son was focused on “nerf guns-nerf guns-nerf guns”. Our goal is for our classes to be compelling. When comprehensible input is also compelling, our students don’t stand a chance! They can’t help but acquire any Core Vocabulary words that we throw at them in quick succession.

How we go about making our classes compelling is the topic for another post. I think I’ve written enough for now.

To re-cap: Understand that when you see a TPRS® lesson--or a lesson being taught with any CI strategy--the goal of the teacher is to provide many, many repetitions of the new vocabulary terms in a comprehensible, compelling way such that the students are focused on the content of the lesson and acquire the terms effortlessly. [Note: We don't forsake 'learning' altogether; the general rule of thumb is for students' language proficiency to improve 90 percent by acquisition and 10 percent by learning.]

To re-cap the re-cap: When you watch a TPRS®/CI lesson, you will observe that the teacher is trying to provide many, many comprehensible repetitions of the new vocabulary terms and to engage the students in the content of the class.

And speaking of compelling, stay tuned for Step’s one of my favorites!

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