My Journey: Teaching with Comprehensible Input and TPRS

I have been teaching languages for several years.  More than several.  Five years.  Times two.  Times two, again.  Ok, 20 years…  I have been teaching for 20 years.  My plan was to give it my all, burn out after 10 years, and retire from teaching.  I felt for a long time that I was not the best version of myself that I could be as a teacher each year, and I struggled with knowing I could do better.  After many years, I grew to recognize that we simply cannot always give it our all.  But we can do the best that we can given the circumstances that we are living.  Life happens.

Although I admit for a few years here and there I felt like I was losing the spark, something  each year has kept me excited and enthusiastic about teaching languages.  Maybe it’s my kindergarteners and first graders who think I’m forever in my 20’s.  Perhaps it is the notes that I have received from middle and high school students telling me I’ve made a difference.  Or it just might be the stories that I get to tell my family and friends.

I’ve moved a lot and taught in eight different schools in Iowa, Austria, Connecticut, California and back home to Iowa.  I’ve taught all ages and all levels of Spanish/French and I’ve loved every job I’ve held.  Each position was extremely difficult to leave and I vividly remember my last day at each school.  For 14 years, I was well regarded in the communities where I taught.  I had strong classroom management and positive relations with my students, give or take a few.  I was content going to school each day, greeting the kids, telling funny stories to make them laugh, following my lesson plan…  Everything was perfect.  Except…  Except when eager young learners approached me saying, “I just want to be able to speak Spanish/French.  Like you.  What can I do?”  I had no response but to shake my head and say, “You are just going to have to study abroad.”  That question didn’t come up too often, but it was always there lingering in the back of my mind.  They wanted more and I couldn’t help them.

Until… six years ago, when I moved to California.  I was introduced to a new-to-me way of teaching:  Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling.  I accepted a position, understanding that they didn’t use a textbook, but novels, instead.  I was not convinced, but it was the only position available in CA at the time.  All other schools were cutting positions.  This school was hiring.

I had heard about TPRS 11 years before, in Connecticut, where we received crash-training.  I was skeptic to this new idea at the time of the training and therefore didn’t fully understand exactly what it was.  I went through the training, stuffed the packet in my file folder in my upright cabinet and continued on my merry way of teaching the way I had been taught, the way I had been taught to teach.  It worked.  Mostly.  But there was always that question I could never answer, lurking in the back of my mind.  How do I help my students speak fluently?

After accepting the position and making the move from CT to CA, I pulled out my file folder and blew the dust off my TPRS packet.  I had HEARD of it, but honestly, I didn’t UNDERSTAND it.  Except… I didn’t realize that I didn’t understand it.  I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing and that was extremely difficult to acknowledge after 14 years of teaching.  It was difficult.  I was no longer highly regarded in my community.  I felt as if I were a brand new teacher.  With brand new difficulties in the classroom that I had not encountered since my first years of teaching.

After a few weeks witnessing what students were able to do in such a short time, I was all in.  And it turned my professional world upside-down.   I had fantastic teachers to observe but not much time to visit their classes and I had a hard time admitting that I needed help.  Yes, I had training.  Yes, I was familiar with TPRS, but no, I was not good at it.  But I was determined.  My colleagues kept telling me, “Even bad TPRS is better than what you were doing before.”  That was also difficult to hear because I HAD been successful in my classroom for many years, doing what I was doing.

I look back now, and I realize that before teaching with Comprehensible Input, I was successful with connecting with students and with classroom management.  I was not successful with helping students acquire language.  I was really good at teaching verbs, grammar and vocabulary and I was fantastic at telling funny, compelling, engaging, entertaining stories in English to connect with students.  They LOVED my stories.

After three years, I finally started to feel fairly comfortable with what I was doing.  Fast forward to present time, six years later.  I feel like I know what I’m doing, but there is SO much out there and a lot to read every day.  And I feel a constant drive to improve my skills. I have never been so involved in my own personal professional development.  I dabble in a little bit of everything.  In retrospect, during those first three years in CA, I was not really doing just TPRS.  I was using Comprehensible Input with my students.  I made sure the language that I used with students was sheltered and comprehensible.  I used a lot of repetition, gestures to convey meaning and translations on the board.  I simplified my funny stories and told them to my students in French/Spanish.   I asked a lot of engaging questions.  I wasn’t a fantastic story-asker, but I could write compelling stories of my own, using little video clips or pulling structures from songs.

It took a while for me to find what was engaging to my individual groups, but with a lot of practice, reading different ideas and getting input from my students, I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of it.  There is ALWAYS something more to explore, but I feel like I am no longer a novice.

Advice I can give after my experience:  Go see other teachers.  Observe what they do.  In person and online.  Use what works for you.  Read.  A lot.  My greatest resource recently has been the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group on Facebook.  Try it out but start small.  If I could do it all over again, I’d use short stories with a LOT of repetition.  It took me, on my own, in three years, to achieve what my current colleagues did in one.  They observed, asked for help and practiced, practiced, practiced.  And we continue to grow together by reading, sharing and collaborating.  We not only collaborate within our building, but with anyone and everyone who is willing/interested in sharing.

You can do this.  If I, a skeptic, with 14 years teaching experience + the way I was taught + the way I was taught to teach, could start something new, YOU CAN, TOO!

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIZt-T7hxZodZZ5VEjrt7ZA

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4 thoughts on “My Journey: Teaching with Comprehensible Input and TPRS

  1. I just found your blog and am really enjoying it! Will you explain what you mean when you say it took you three years to accomplish what your peers did in one? What would you do differently? I’d appreciate any advice. Heading into my first year of CI. (I just purchased several Hedstrom ebooks last night. :D) Thank you!

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    1. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying my blog! It inspires me to keep writing!

      My CI journey started in 2010 and it took me longer than my colleagues because I didn’t know of (or research) many resources. I didn’t observe other CI teachers because I thought I didn’t have the time. Once I finally did get into another classroom during my 2nd year, it was amazing! In 2013, I moved to Iowa and brought CI with me, coaching my current colleagues through the transition. We communicate and collaborate multiple times, daily. We observe each other and team teach.

      If I were making the switch now, I would observe other CI teachers, research best practices, watch videos of CI teaching, join the Facebook CI groups and read, read read! There are SO many great ideas out there, but I would start out small, slowly with stories. Short repetitive stories. I’d write (or find) a compelling story and milk it for all I could for as long as I could through different engaging listening, reading, and writing activities. This is the core of what I do now and after three weeks on consistent input, not only can my students retell the story, they can break down parts of it and use the parts in their own original stories or conversation!

      I do more story telling than asking and it’s what works for me. Find what works for you in all the ideas that are out there. What is important is that the structures are comprehensible and high-frequency (useful). Then repeat, repeat and repeat the structures! If you are passionate about the way you are teaching with CI, your students will be, too! 🙂

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      1. Thank you so much for the reply! I am soaking up every single resource I can including the newly purchased Slavic how to books (not Hedstrom–oops!!) I REALLY appreciate your advice to start out small. I am a member of the TPRS FB group (and others) and SO many fabulous activities and resources fly through there daily I am already feeling very stressed and overwhelmed and am in a panic hoarding everything that sounds fun. Today I am dedicating myself to start small, trust the basic principles and know that after I have a few years under my belt I can search these same ideas out again and incorporate more of the activities and authres that I see flying by. I also very much appreciate you sharing how you story tell more than ask. Hugs.

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