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Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Studying Thai With TPR

This is a good experience for me... better, in fact, than when I was trying to teach English with TPR to the beauty salon people. That was frustrating because they were a very mixed level group and the commands were too simple for them and the room was a closet (literally) and so there was no room for moving around. Also, they weren’t serious students-- they weren’t paying me so they didn’t view it as anything important... from day to day there would be totally different students... basically a disaster. I came away frustrated.

But its much better experiencing it as a student with Wat. For one, Kristin and I are serious students who want to learn Thai. Plus, we are paying him and that always adds an extra bit of commitment. This time, the news is great. While I struggled to fill 20 minutes with the salon girls, Kristin and I easily go an hour with TPR. I find it interesting and easy to follow and much more stimulating than the “talking head” lectures used at AUA (from level 2 up).

I’ve also learned some basic principles for using the technique.

1. Introduce only one new word at a time. Wat got rushed sometimes and tried to introduce an entire phrase- I’d freeze and have no idea what he was saying... even when he demonstrated it.

2. Work each new word multiple times- Its important to introduce only one new word at a time... and then demonstrate and practice it over and over and over again before introducing something else. This can still be done with variety. For example, the word “grab” could be introduced and then combined with as many known words as possible: “grab the table”, “grab the chair”, “grab me”, “grab the door”, “grab the table fast”, “grab the chair slow”, “walk backward and grab the chair”, etc..... In this way the new word gets massive repitition and maximum variety.

3. The basic foundation for introducing a new word that Wat uses is: a) Teacher says command and demonstrates it..... three or more times. b) Teacher says and demonstrates the same command while the class (or small group) joins them. c) Teacher gives the new command to individual students (or pairs) but does not demonstrate it. d) Teacher combines the new command with other (already learned) commands/words with as much variety and novelty as possible. e) Once students are responding to all of these without hesitation, teacher goes back to “a)” and introduces another new word.

As the number of commands and vocabulary build through this cycle, the teacher can gradually create multiple commands by stringing single commands together with “and”: “Grab the door and the chair”. “Walk backwards and grab the table slowly”. Etc....

4. Repitition and variety are the key..... mixing and matching the vocabulary in many different and unique combinations tests comprehension and hammers home the vocabulary. Novel commands seem to be especially important- as they are unexpected. “Sit on the chair” is expected- its easy for us to hear “sit” and automatically sit down on the chair. But “sit on your head” is totally unexpected and requires comprehension of all of the vocabulary and structures of the command--- its also fun and keeps us alert and listening carefully.

5. Beware synonyms! It is very easy to vary commands slightly by using a common synonym... but this has been a big problem for us. For example, Wat first taught us one word for “stand” (“yun”) and used it multiple times and we caught on. However, at later times he would use another common word for “stand”-- and we’d be lost and confused. Such synonyms must be treated as completely new words-- introduced with the same process as any other word, I think. As a native speaker it is VERY easy to forget this. When I was practicing TPR with the salon students, I kept sneaking in new words without thinking. Of course the great thing about TPR is you get immediate feedback... right away you know they aren't understanding... because they just stare at you instead of responding to the command.

Even small distinctions can be a problem at times. Sometimes I would use “stand” while at other times I used “stand up”. The addition of the word “up” immediately caused confusion. The solution, of course, is to introduce “up” as a new word with the full TPR process..... once the word is acquired, it would then be no problem to interchange “stand” and “stand up”. I could have put "up" in many different contexts until they acquired it... then "stand up" would have not confused them. This same principle applies to other common synonyms such as sit/sit-down, speak/say/talk, put/place, etc......

6. Garcia is right... it’s far better to introduce fewer words and work them thoroughly, than to rush and cram as many words as possible. As a student, it was more satisfying to deeply acquire a few words.... then to have a hesitant acquisition of many. It’s not a race. When I was teaching with TPR, I felt that going slow might be too boring.... I felt pressure to continually introduce new words. Again, its that native-speaker syndrome... it just seems too simple and easy for us. But now, as a student, I realize that thoroughness is better than quantity (as is true in many pursuits). The teacher may fear the initial simplicity is boring... but I find it a tremendously empowering as a student: what a great feeling to understand everything and respond quickly and correctly. Very motivating!!

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