How is that TPRS working out?

Comparing writing samples of level 1 and level 3 students taught entirely through TPRS and TCI

Last Friday, after watching a portion of episode 2 of the Spanish telenovela El Internado, my Spanish 1 students wrote a 10 minute speed write describing what they understood. My level 3 students, on the other hand, passed in their reading journals which they complete after reading in class (they return the reading journals to me every day so that I know they are only writing spontaneously in class and not looking words up after class). Spanish 3 journal entries are also speed writes, roughly fives minutes each time without using resources. Here are some writing samples by non-native, non-heritage speakers only.

I am going to start with the high fliers. The first writing sample is by a level 1 kid, Zach, who would be spectacular regardless of who taught him. Note how complex his sentence structure is… all he has to do is listen to me and he soaks it right up. Interestingly, Zack is a student in my “difficult class”. Difficult keeping them all interested in the story, difficult in the sense that I have to go a lot slower than other classes, difficult asking a story while requiring appropriate responses. That we go slower and do not do as many stories or movie talks as the other sections seems to have no impact on Zack´s development.

Click on photo to get a bigger, more readable version
Click on photo to get a bigger, more readable version

By the time Zach gets to Spanish 3 he will probably be like Alex, who is currently reading the Spanish translation of The Host. My Spanish 3 kids choose their reading freely; there is no reward for choosing a difficult novel and no shame imposed on those that are reading Pobre Ana. It is interesting to see what Alex is acquiring… for instance, I have never focused on the phrase así que (I cannot even remembering consciously using it in class).

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The next pair are by “silent” students. Nobody in class knows that Kinidee is a superstar because she is so shy, but look at her writing:

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The Spanish 3 student who wrote the following is not as expressive as Kinidee, but just as quiet in class. I used to worry that I was not giving enough individual feedback to the quiet students (I rarely correct grammar on written work, mostly only if requested by a student). Yet this quiet student has developed quite fine simply by listening to a lot of CI:

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The Spanish 1 students who are less-expressive and have more errors in their writing are still comprehensible. What I see in many of the average writing samples are problems with gender and number, confusion over ser and estar, and a heavy reliance on third person verb forms. Here are two examples from the lower end of the spectrum:

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Click for a bigger image

Don´t you love the way she included the reaction of the class in her description? Nobody else thought to include that, but it is true… we all smiled during that scene!

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The interesting thing is that I am fairly certain that these two students would have failed my class prior to TPRS. Or more exactly, I would have failed them. With TPRS both are writing pertinent comments after watching and discussing a clip of an authentic Spanish-speaking telenovela. How crazy is that!!

Here are examples of average work in my Spanish 3 class. Student errors are not as clearly patterned as the Spanish 1 students. On one hand, after three years of hearing a lot of comprehensible input, everyone can rely on their feeling for the language. Trouble happens when they use the conditional or the subjunctive. All of my colleagues still shelter grammar so, with the exception of the few students that had me as a Spanish 1 teacher, they are hearing the subjunctive for the first time when they meet me:

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Click for large image

Click here for a larger image
Click here for a larger image

My take home point is to not worry too much about the mistakes that exist in the Spanish 1 writing samples. Seriously, it works itself out.

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20 comments

  1. I have been teaching using TPRS for the past 4-5 years. The first 2 I followed the Bailne Ray curriculumn and taught 6th grade. The last 3 years I have taught 8th grades. My last 2 years have been very challenging b/c the students have had Spanish for 1 year from grammarian/ Textbook teachers in 7th. I basically start from scatch every year.

    I would love to use El Internado with these students but i’m not sure if 8th graders are to young. Any thoughts? I would skip the short nude and long dorm room scenes but do you teach it like a movie talk or do you let the show play as well?

    • I would be really nervous about the language. Obviously watch ahead and decide what to show. This year (and last year to some degree) when I am showing this to my little freshmen I only show them little pieces… I tell them that it is just the good parts, and I do a lot of talking describing what they have and have not seen. It is like telling a friend about a show… I don´t describe EVERYTHING, right? If you are judicious and can curate the parts well, I see no reason why not. I would never just let the show play.

  2. Hola! Thanks for sharing your writing samples. They make me super excited to start TPRS with my students this fall. Question about your FVR: what kinds of books do you have available to the students? Do you happen to have a list that you would be willing to share?

    • I am so glad that you asked! I am giving a presentation at NTPRS in DC this July about my FVR program, focusing on advice on how to build an effective program. If you come, please check out my presentation. If you cannot make it then I will be posting my power point on this website and I will be including advice about building the library… I certainly made mistakes that I will pass on so that you do not have to make them too!

  3. Mike, how do you come up with grades for report cards? Do you also do quick quizzes, and do you give interpersonal grades based on paying attention, no side convos, enthusiastic answers, etc? Also, what do you think about making the last grade earned the grade that goes on the report card?

    • I had never heard of that last one… funny, I understand where you are coming from, but I try to avoid having any one grade worth very much. Also, like many TPRS teachers, I do not announce assessments nor do I tell kids when they are doing something for a grade. Looking at my grade book I have grades for reading journals (which is simply were they here to do it, or if not then did they come by during lunch to make it up), quick writes (mostly graded by word count), outside reading (the stories posted on this website are often, but not always, read at home), in class reading quizzes (when reading done in class we do it together, I answer any questions, and then I announce that the activities on back are an in-class quiz and THAT is done individually… I grade those closely for content correctness to make sure kids really do understand everything I am saying), I have a music quiz section which is listening comprehension based on an activity that I will present at NTPRS this summer, and of course short comprehension quizzes done in class based on whatever we have been talking about. I have tried to grade based upon class behavior but recording that while teaching has proven to be too much for me.

  4. I really appreciate you sharing your sample writes and taking the time to explain what you do. How many minutes do your Sp 1 and 3’s read during FVR time? Do they always conclude with a free write on their reading or just some times?

    • I try to get FVR started with my level 1’s during 2nd semester, and we usually do ten minutes about twice a week. I don’t want to push them too fast or they use the time to disengage. Same with follow-up assignments; the ideal is simply not to have any follow-up assignment because it changes the nature of “pleasure reading” into a school assignment. However, they are part of a larger culture where some do not have models of reading for pleasure so I try to scaffold the experience to eventually get them to the point that pleasure reading has not assessments. Part of that scaffolding includes sitting among them and actively reading to model the behavior, but another part is to give occasional free-writes so that the grade conscious students know “there is a reason we do this”. I try to wean them off the assessment, but if they need it then I give it. In that case it is usually an opinion piece, not a summary of the reading which is pretty much a school task. I feel like the opinion piece is what we do in real life when we talk about books we like. I have never gotten 100% buy-in from 100% of the students, so I am still working to find that balance of time reading and whether or not we assess.

      By this point in the year my level 3 students easily do 20 minutes of reading 3-4 times per week, and the reading journals are assigned only sporadically. It si not a science but rather the art of sitting with them and getting a feeling as to what they need… if are they engrossed in the reading then I see little reason to attach an assessment.

    • I use El Internado with level 1 classes starting in the second semester and yes, it really does help keep them engaged and motivated to learn Spanish. I wrote a post about how I teach using authentic resources with the lowest levels: https://mrpeto.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/going-slow-with-el-internado/. For me the key is to remember that it is the comprehensible, repetitive teacher talk that leads to true acquisition. I never fool myself into thinking that the dialogue of the show is repetitive or comprehensible enough at that level to actually lead them to acquire language. However, the show does present a compelling classroom situation from which I can spin many, many repetitive conversations that never get stale.

  5. I loved reading these writing samples. I had similar impressive results in my Spanish one classes when I started teaching with TPRS & requiring quick-writes like these. You mentioned that you were colleagues in the same school are not teaching the same way. They are still sheltering grammar at the lower levels. My question is how do they respect your teaching methodology? Are they complaining about receiving your level one students in Spanish two, then having to teach them how to conjugate verbs in t-chart form? If a student is moved from your class into one of their classes do they complain about the classes not being aligned to one another? How is this supported by the administration? Personally, I feel like I am seen as a loose cannon going against the whole department if I do something so “daring” as to use the past tense in Spanish one, never mind subjunctive! I just left the school where it was “agreed-upon” that our students would not do any preterite or imperfect until the second semester of Spanish two.

    • Crazy!!! We are all TPRS teachers in my department (ie no verb conjugation charts), but I am the only one who does not shelter grammar. My admin encourages respect for each teacher´s professional choices, so we all have our own approaches under the umbrella of CI. I think that is a good balance. High frequency structures are high frequency regardless of whether we have a mandatory list of structures or not, so if everyone is really story-asking then next year all kids will have a foundation to build on.

      To make things even more heterogeneous, I have a lively FVR program. Especially once we get to level 3 kids acquire vocab from independent reading, like the girl who insisted that our next story take place en la Edad Media. Differences in vocab reflect student interests, and that is a truth whether they are doing FVR or not.

      We have a plethora of resources, but the string that unites our classes are the TPRS novels. Once we started planning our classes around communicating stories, not teaching grammar, then all of our differences melted away. Teachers do not have to teach all of the novels available (we have eight different choices of novels for level 1, four choices for level 2 and three choices for level 3). In addition there are a lot of other sources for readings: Carol Gaab´s TPRS textbooks, Blaine Ray´s stories, Anne Matava´s story scripts, stories found online from sites like Martina Bex & Bryan Kandel.

      The one complaint I do have, however, is that I wish teachers would use natural grammar from the beginning, even if it were just passively and not highlighted as major structures. It was so easy to include past tense in structures in Spanish 1 after having heard story retells for weeks using both present and past tenses.

    • This exactly! I am now in another school after having left one that was full of “Teach by the book and if you do creative things you’re wasting curricular time” only to be in another school where I have WAY more freedom to teach how I think it’s best, but am still struggling to align the department.

      The students have a strict grammarian, teach by the book teacher for Spanish 1 who insists on covering every grammar point in the text book and rushes if the students don’t understand because of some unofficial “We have to get through the book” rule.

      They come to me for Spanish 2 (or they stay with her), then they go to another teacher for Spanish 3 who means well and has good intentions, but doesn’t know how to really implement TPRS and make it work (neither of us have had formal training yet). Then they come to me for Spanish 4 and AP Spanish 5. While I’m proud of the progress my 4s and 5s make, I feel as though their battle would have been easier fought if they’d been immersed in less sheltered grammar instruction and more expressive instruction in the past. I feel like there isn’t consistency and I LOVE how expressive these writing samples are.

      I don’t want my students to have to bounce around the “Grammar” vs “CI” every other year simply because I can’t teach all the classes here 😦

    • I am slowly joining many other people who add TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) to recognize that much of what I do in class is not strict TPRS (i.e movie talks, music, cultural presentations) but the presentation is still within the rubric of comprehensible input. When I talk about dancing, or Day of the Dead, it is still in comprehensible Spanish (not English). That said, I am still using TPRS techniques so I am ambivalent about replacing TPRS with the TCI label. TPRS is the core of everything I do.

  6. This is really impressive! Thanks for sharing. I’m curious about how you score the writing? I see very large numbers at the top of these papers. Do you have a post about scoring writing? If not, I’d love to see one sometime.

    • I use Blaine´s system of one point per word (I say “in Spanish” although I think Blaine allows names of stores, etcetera). At the very beginning of the year, when writing 100 words seems impossible, I always offer +50 points for good classroom response while storyasking, things like that… the extra points die down after the first few quick writes.

      As I see it, there are three reasons to go through and grade the quality of the writing, and two of them are against the interests of students. (1) Assign a grade that differentiates the class: I do not see how identifying fast processors improves their acquisition because language acquisition is not a function of studying harder, and worse identifying slow processors will likely create affective problems down the road. (2) Some argue that students learn by identifying their errors made in writing samples, but the research clearly shows that beginners do NOT benefit from error correction (on writing that is, I am not referring to the practice of orally reformulating incorrect student output in class, which I always do). I believe there is research that suggests that selective error correction on writing works for advanced students… perhaps someone else can chime in if they know about this? The third reason to grade is so that the teacher (not student) becomes conscious of recurring errors and addresses them in class later (through circling, not explicit discussion of grammar). In that case, I do not know why that grade would have to become part of the students record.

      Instead of intensively grading every paper I look for themes, like “I need to circle the first person more” that will address the biggest problems I am seeing. I do this once a week, so recurring big issues are tracked and addressed without ever calling any particular student out. The reason grading is not tied to the actual quality of writing is because I do not want any incentive for kids to think about the mechanics of the writing, instead I want them to provide me a window into their unconscious knowledge of grammar. I always tell them not to worry about grammar or spelling, just let it spill out as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the year if their writing is a jumbled mess, then I know I need to focus on less and circle more.

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