"Implementing TPRS in the Elementary School"
Three weeks into the school year, I switched districts and levels. For the past 4 years, I've taught 7-12 Spanish. (I also taught a couple years of English, and this year, we started offering Spanish to 6th graders.) Before that, I taught K-12 Spanish, and it's fair to say that for at least the first two years, my elementary school methodology was an utter disaster. I got the hang of it after a while, I think, so that if the little ones weren't learning as much as they could have, they at least weren't wasting their time.
This year, everything about my teaching is better than it was the last time I taught elementary school.
1.) Learning goals. I understand what learning goals are. I used to think I did, but I didn't. I understand the difference between learning goals and learning activities. Most importantly, I understand their use and their limitations in second-language classrooms.
2.) Classroom management. I am a much better classroom manager than I was, I think. We spend much more time learning Spanish now than we used to, and it's much less about control and much more about creating community. I also know just how deficient I still am in this area, which makes me shudder to think of how bad I used to be.
3.) Curriculum. I know much much better what students should learn in order to be successful at a language, and I understand much much better how well they're supposed to know it. This began when I stopped using textbooks as a curriculum map, and
continued when I learned about using word frequency counts as curriculum
4.) Instruction. The quality of instruction is much higher. It's both more engaging and more effective. Not only are learners engaged and contributing, the instruction is hitting them, as it were, where they live, by doing the things that need doing to learn a language. . Students can learn about language the way I used to do it, as is evidenced by the fact that some of them managed to do so. But it turns out that it was far from the best way.
5.) Assessment. While I'm back to a curriculum that focuses on assessing a fairly arbitrary vocabulary set, it's a much higher-quality assessment of the arbitrary vocabulary set. At least as importantly, I know how to get the information I actually need from those assessments.
6.) Intervention. Language intervention was always sort of a tricky subject for me. I'm not a reading specialist, and frankly, anything I've learned about language acquisition I learned through some mechanism other than my teacher training (at least, until about 3 years ago.) But now I understand a little bit better how students (especially young students) learn language, and by extension I understand a little bit better why they might not be learning. This suggests some of the ways I can identify and support students who are having trouble. It also suggests ways of shaping instruction so as to avoid those troubles to begin with.
The basis of my instruction is to use Spanish in a comprehensible way that students find interesting. Everything else is at best extra or at worse a waste of time. Dr. Krashen goes so far as to say that "interesting" isn't enough; it needs to be compelling, so compelling the students forget they're listening to another language. After you have their interest, repeat high-frequency vocabulary until your students are fluent with it. Fluency means that, when you ask a student actor a question, s/he answers correctly without hesitation. (This definition comes from Blaine Ray, one of the creators and main propagators of the TPRS method I use.)
Of course, elementary school students are a different breed. I teach up to 4th grade, and last month I taught 6th grade. I'm here to tell you there's a lot of learning that goes on in those 2 years. However, so far, it's played pretty well to the 2nd graders and up. They're interested in the stories, they want to see what happens next. I'm using enough of their own cultural references that they're getting it.
But kindergarteners? Fuggedaboudit. What are kindergarteners even interested in?
In my head, my stories are varied enough in form and content to hold attention. However, kindergarteners' attention spans are really short. Maximum attention spans, common wisdom goes, equals students's age + 1. That means most kindergarteners, at the beginning of the school year, can pay attention maybe 6 or 7 minutes. In a 30-minute class, that means changing activities 5 times.
I'm really going back to fundamentals here. I can provide comprehensible input that young learners find compelling, and change activities 5 times in 30 minutes. In fact, it isn't hard; it just takes--surprise--preparation, a focus on what works. I'm not hurting anybody, nobody's going to be dumber after I teach them Spanish, so I can slow down, do this right, and make sure I'm doing what kids need me to do.