Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

by Kristin Dodds

One of the key things that interested me about TPR is the research that shows that it facilitates rapid and long term recall of vocabulary, especially for beginning level students. The traditional methods I have used in class have not been effective at doing this.

Another appeal of TPR was its fun, active, low-stress approach to teaching language. Last year I taught adult immigrants at night. They arrived after a long day of work and found it very hard to sit through lectures or drills. I tried to play games with them, but there was no consistent theory or research behind what I was doing. Therefore, I was delighted to read about TPR as it seemed to fit my needs perfectly.

I explored a number of TPR sources in order to get more information about its effectiveness, the research behind it, and the TPR resources available to teachers.

An excellent place to start with TPR is Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Notebook [1]. This resource contains detailed suggestions on how to use the method. The book includes specific commands, TPR games, assessment and testing tools, and a wealth of other information. It also contains background information on the method:

Dr. James Asher introduced, in the early sixties, the concept of comprehending the target language through body movements. He went against the audio-lingual method, which starts with production and is a slow motion, high stress way of learning. Asher felt that if the audio-lingual method was turned inside out and the production was moved to the middle of the training program, language instruction would work for most, if not all students.

Comprehension should come first and continue until students are comfortable and confident in their understanding. Comprehension should also continue until students show a sign that they are ready to begin the transition to production. Asher's idea of comprehension is one that will produce long-term retention. Therefore, believability is important. If the input is understood but not believable, the result is only short term retention. Believability can be achieved by working the target language through body movements. This is the essence of TPR.

Asher [2] calls this comprehension through physical behavior, 'language body dialogues'. You hold a conversation with the student when you give a direction and the student responds with an action. Language body dialogues play to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the uncritical side. That may explain why input in this manner has high believability for students.

This is what Asher calls the silent period, which is directly related to the silent period from infancy to about 18 months. During the silent period of infancy, there are thousands of language body dialogues when adults direct infants with commands. Learning a language through TPR produces internalization, which is a right brain activity. Memory is different in that it tends to be a left brain activity achieved through repetition. In memory, the goal is to retrieve on cue a copy of the input. Internalization is long term memory that a person can not only retrieve, but can manipulate. As comprehension is internalized, there comes a point when students are ready to produce (such as talk, read and write). Comprehension continues, even once production begins. "

One excellent TPR resource is Todd McKay's TPR index cards [3] (sequence / chain commands and narrative). These cards provide a series of commands that slowly build in complexity. They are ideal for beginning level learners. Everything is scripted for the teacher, so as to cut down on time consuming lists and having to fumble through papers or books.

Bertha Segal Cook [4] highlights another important point. She points out that by stressing comprehension and allowing for a silent period, TPR eventually leads to natural, spontaneous speech. Traditional methods, which force speech, often lead to embarrassed and rehearsed speech production.

TPR is based on the concept that language acquisition can be greatly accelerated through the use of kinesthetic behavior (body movement). Dr. Asher noted in his early work that young children without schooling easily comprehended and uttered thousands of sentences, but both high school and college students, under professional teachers, found the process of 2nd language learning a stressful and unsuccessful experience. TPR reproduces the natural order of acquisition. Listening skill is far in advance of speaking skill. For instance, it is common to observe young children, who are not yet able to produce more than one word utterances, to demonstrate perfect understanding when an adult says 'Run to Grandma and give her a kiss.'

Understanding the spoken language should be developed in advance of speaking. In 1st language acquisition, adults will manipulate children's physical behavior by a massive number of commands. So, understanding should be developed through movement of the student's body. The instructor can utter commands to manipulate student behavior. Most of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned through the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor.

Speech emerges naturally in the 1st language, it is not forced. Therefore, do not attempt to force speaking from students. As the students internalize the target language through understanding of what is heard, there will be a point of readiness to speak. The individual will spontaneously begin to produce utterances. Asher stresses that speech production (expressive stages) is natural, developmental and a spontaneous reaction that follows internalization (receptive stages - comprehending) of the target language's code.

One criticism of TPR is that it is only useful for beginning level students. Some teachers complain that the commands become tedious for intermediate level students and that more complex language is difficult to teach strictly with commands. To address this perceived limitation, Blaine Ray and Contee Seely developed TPR Storytelling [5], an excellent method for expanding TPR to the intermediate and advanced levels.

Ray and Seely support the use of "classic" TPR at the beginning levels, and as a means of pre-teaching key vocabulary at intermediate and advanced levels. "In using TPR, everything is comprehensible. When students don't understand, the word (s) gets modeled. Teaching vocabulary so that students experience it as something real or very realistic and therefore making it highly believable, is most effectively done by teaching words through actions - TPR. One reason that TPR produces long term recall, Asher suggests, is that "in the initial learning, there was keen activation of the kinesthetic sensory system or 'muscle learning' ". By using your muscles, you can remember. TPR words can be demonstrated with an action and easily understood without translation. These words are taught with commands and the students respond with total physical responses.

After the first exposure, each item is practiced with physical responses. TPR teaches words quickly and in chunks. However, the problem with TPR is that only a small percentage of the words in a language can be modeled and easily understood without translation (ex. government). So, TPR is effective as long as the teacher has interesting and non-repetitive novel commands and it is used with words that are easily demonstrated and understood. TPR can be used regularly and effectively in the pre-storytelling stage (TPR Storytelling)."

After the beginning level, Ray and Seely introduce the idea of storytelling.... the teacher tells stories and has students act them out physically, playing various roles and characters. Each story is then re-told two or three more times in order to facilitate comprehension. Sometimes the story is re-told from a different point of view, or using a different time frame (past, present, progressive, future, etc...).

The above sources sum up the basic methods and resources of TPR. There is also a good body of research that demonstrates strong benefits for TPR when compared with traditional methods.

A study by Valerian Postovsky [6] supports the silent period and focus on comprehension that are key elements of the TPR method. In TPR, production is delayed until comprehension has been extensively internalized. Evidence supporting the hypothesis that delaying production is beneficial may be found in a doctoral dissertation by Valerian Postovsky who was at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The subjects of Postovsky's study were military personnel ages 18-24 with about 2.75 years of college education. The results showed that overall proficiency in Russian was significantly better when oral practice was delayed at the beginning of language instruction until comprehension of spoken Russian was extensively internalized.

Another very important benefit of TPR is that students like it. In a study at the University of Texas, Swaffar and Woodruff [7] compared the retention rate of beginning level students in traditional German classes with those in TPR classes. They found that the attrition rate (from level one to two) in traditional classes was about 50%, while it was only 25% in the TPR classes. This is an important point, as attrition is a problem in many language programs.

The Teaching Methods Textbook [8] referred to a study that compared TPR to audio-lingual methods. "After 45 hours of instruction, the TPR group was compared to the audio-lingual group, whose hours ranged from 75 to 200. The TPR group exceeded all other groups in listening skills. After 90 hours of instruction, the group was given a form of the Pimsleur Spanish Proficiency Test that was intended for students who had completed 150 hours of college instruction, audio-lingual style.

Even with almost no direct instruction in reading and writing, the students were beyond the 75th percentile for level I and beyond the 65th percentile for level II. These studies clearly indicate that TPR produced better results than the audio-lingual method. Asher attributed the success to the fact that TPR utilizes implicit learning, whereas audio-lingual methods rely on explicit learning. These two concepts roughly parallel Krashen's acquisition/learning distinction."

Dr. Asher [9] himself, the developer of TPR, summarized the benefits of the method as follows, "I have demonstrated in laboratory studies and by language teachers in thousands of classrooms around the world in European, Asian, Semitic and Indian languages that TPR is perhaps the most powerful tool in a teacher's linguistic tool box.

It is powerful for three reasons. First, TPR works for almost all students of any age. Second, it is high speed language acquisition (students comprehend the target language in chunks rather than word by word). Third, study after study has shown that the skillful application of TPR results in long term retention lasting up to years. My conclusion is: this powerful linguistic tool of TPR rates special attention in a course of its own followed up with practice by students in the field monitored by "personal trainers" - the professional college teaching staff."

Because TPR has been around since the late 1960's, there is a wealth of research to support its effectiveness. TPR has been shown to be superior to audio-lingual and other traditional methods. It has been shown to produce long term retention of vocabulary and grammar. It has also been shown to reduce attrition in foreign language programs.

My practicum experience at AUA (which utilizes a silent period and a passive listening method), also convinces me of the efficacy of TPR. I have had one class at AUA that approximated TPR methods and it was fantastic. I learned the vocabulary for the parts of the body very rapidly and retained it. By contrast, it takes me much longer to understand and acquire language in the passive listening classes.

Overall I believe that TPR is an excellent method for beginning level classes, and with the addition of TPR Storytelling techniques it is an excellent method for all levels. The research behind it, and the wealth of available TPR resources and materials, makes this a very good method for ESL teachers who are interested in Natural Approaches to language teaching. I hope, in the near future, to gain hands on experience with TPR.

Ramiro Garcia, 2001, Instructor's Notebook How to Apply TPR for Best Results, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., pp. I-16 to I-18

Asher, J. 1993. In Garcia (2001)

Todd McKay, 2003, TPR Index Cards in English, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., pp.1 & 5

Bertha Segal Cook, 1999, Teaching English Through Action, Berty Segal, Inc., pp.ii-iii

Blaine Ray and Contee Seely, 2003, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling: Achieving Real Language Acquisition in School, Blaine Ray Workshops and Command Performance Language Institute, pp. 9-11, 13-14

Valerian Postovsky, 1974, "Effects of Delay in Oral Practice at the beginning of the 2nd Language Learning" - Modern Language Journal 58, pp. 229-239. In Eric J. Schessler, 1997, English Grammar Through Actions, 2nd Edition, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., p.9

Swaffar, Janet & Woodruff, Margaret. 1978. "Language for Comprehension: Focus on Reading". Modern Language Journal, 62 (1978): 27-32

Patricia A. Richard-Amato, 2003, Making It Happen From Interactive to Participatory Language Teaching Theory and Practice, 3rd Edition, Longman, pp.159-160

James Asher, 2003, Learning Another Language Through Actions, 6th Edition, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Silent Period Teaching Methods

by AJ Hoge

Krashen's input theory states that comprehensible input (not production practice) is the key to language acquisition. My own teaching experiences support this hypothesis. I have become increasingly frustrated with conventional methods which stress speaking. Clearly these methods were not effective, yet I have lacked a sound alternative.

The more I thought about Krashen's theory, the more I realized that taken to its logical conclusion, it implied a silent period-- speech practice was not important. I contemplated this conclusion, yet I had no idea how to put it into action in the classroom. All of my teaching techniques emphasized speech production, not input.

My interest in silent period methods was furthered by my practicum, which I did at American University Alumni School in Bangkok. Their Thai language program utilizes a long silent period (6-8 months). From a student’s perspective, I have found this method much more enjoyable and completely free of stress. Also, compared with conventional language classes (Spanish and Japanese) I have found that AUA’s methods produce greater long term retention of vocabulary.

While a silent period and comprehensible input-based methods made sense, and my experience as a student & observer at AUA implied strong benefits, I still had many questions:
"Is there research to support the anecdotal benefits of a silent period?"
"How long should the silent period be?"
"During the silent period, is there interaction between teacher and student or only receptive listening?"
I explored a number of sources, including books, websites, academic journals, direct observation (at AUA) and online forums to investigate these questions.

In his Masters thesis, Keith Challenger [1] echoes my initial sentiments about Krashen's Hypothesis and its implications. He states, "If Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (that language is acquired in only one way—by understanding comprehensible input) is correct, then most language education is fundamentally flawed by procreating the assumption that the best way to learn to speak is by speaking. This is the heart of the matter."

Dr. J. Marvin Brown [2] in an essay on his Listening Approach, addressed this issue specifically with adult learners in mind. He believed that the "critical period" is a false barrier and that the foreign accent that often occurs in adult language learners was the result of adults trying to speak much too early. He writes, "What we’re suggesting is this: The reason that children always end up as native speakers is because they learn to speak by listening. And the reason adults don’t is that they learn to speak by speaking."

Finally, David Long [3] relates his experience as Director of a program that utilizes a very long silent period. He believes, like Dr. Brown, that early speech practice is harmful: "All of the evidence we have gathered shows that those students who remain silent, refusing the temptation to ‘try to speak’, excel; whereas those students who ‘try to speak’ set limits on their ability to both learn and to use the language. We have never seen a single exception to this rule! The fact is, practicing to speak actually slows down the learning process! Much of the problem here is that we always want to gauge our progress by equating it with speaking ability. Speaking is one of the last parts that emerge in language acquisition. At our school, we recommend a silent period between 600 to 800 hours of instruction."

Our own Ashley Hastings [4] makes a similar argument (Hastings 2003). His Focal Skills Approach is a method which closely adheres to Krashen's Input Hypothesis. The method stresses comprehensible input and does not pressure students to speak. Dr. Hastings describes the system as follows, "We created a system of four sequential modules. Each module except the fourth focuses on a specific language skill. The modules, in order, are: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Advanced.

In the Listening Module, students spend all of their time improving listening comprehension. The teacher provides comprehensible input in the form of clear, unhurried English, always accompanied by visual or contextual aids to comprehension. Video movies are used extensively, the teacher narrates the action and paraphrases the dialogue, thus providing exceptionally well-illustrated and contextualized input.

We do not require students to perform when they are not ready and willing to do so. Speaking is always voluntary, hence it is genuine speaking in contrast to the embarrassed, strained output that passes for speaking in some methods.” Dr. Hastings presents research that shows that students in Focal Skills programs acquire English 30+% faster than students in conventional programs.

Dr. Asher [5], founder of the Total Physical Response, also advocates a silent period. His method stresses listening and physical responses from students. Typically, the teacher gives commands and students respond to the directions. Asher (Asher 1996) quotes a 1972 study of adults who had taken 32 hours of German using TPR: Although the experimental group had only 32 hours of training, it did significantly better in listening comprehension than a group of college students who had received 75 to 100 hours of audio-lingual/grammar-translation instruction in German.

Other studies of TPR have found that the method is superior in promoting long-term retention of vocabulary and language structures when compared to traditional methods. Asher believes that Total Physical Response may facilitate long-term recall for the same reason that the practice of any manual skill, such as bicycling, produces long term recall. Emphases on comprehensible input, and a short silent period of 10-12 hours, are hallmarks of the method.

Valerian Potovsky [6] (Potovsky 1974) did a study of military personnel between 18-24 years old. The results showed that overall proficiency in Russian was significantly better when oral practice was delayed at the beginning of language instruction until comprehension of spoken Russian was extensively internalized.

Stephen Krashen [7] advocates a silent period of 10-12 hours of instruction. He has expressed support for many of the methods mentioned in this essay, "Studies with adults show that students in comprehensible input-based methods are as accurate grammatically as students in grammatically-based methods and are often more accurate. In addition, students in comprehensible-input based methods are ALWAYS superior in tests involving communication. This theory implies that second language classes should be filled with comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment. This is precisely what newer and more successful methods do, such as Terrell’s Natural Approach, Asher’s Total Physical Response, and Lozanov’s Suggestodpedia". To this list Ray’s Total Physical Response Storytelling, Brown’s Listening Approach, Hastings’ Focal Skills, and Long’s Automatic Language Growth could also be added.

Among adherents to Krashen's Input Hypothesis there seems to be general agreement on the use of a silent period. However, there is disagreement about its parameters. These controversies fall into two broad categories. One, just how long should the silent period be? Two, is it better to encourage interaction during the silent period or to encourage receptive listening only?

Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s [2] Listening Approach stresses a very long silent period and receptive listening. A key technique of his approach is the "talk show": Two teachers have a discussion (or tell a story) while students listen and observe. This same technique is also used in the Focal Skills Approach.

On the issue of length, Dr. Brown wrote, "Krashen underestimated the importance of the silent period- which may account for the fossilization that sometimes occurs with adult learners. If we try to speak before the new phoneme and grammar traces are ready we are forced to use the old ones and short circuit the building of new ones. The priority of concern for the Listening Approach is whether adults are prepared to refrain from speaking for at least 6 months. It is clear they are able to speak, that they want to speak, and everyone expects them to speak. The need then is for a learning environment where the desire to speak is removed.

Experience at AUA shows that a long silent period will help students avoid the fossilization of inaccurate grammar as well as a foreign accent. If you want to become like a native speaker of another language you don’t have to do it as a child but LIKE a child."

On the issue of interactivity, Taeko Tomioka [8] stresses that passive, receptive listening is not enough. "It is often proposed by some teachers that listening comprehension is so important that it is useful to let students watch TV programs. This activity is not enough by itself…..there is no active response on the part of the students. The language acquiring process is always an interaction of stimulus-response on both sides. Children acquiring a language in natural settings are not passive at all. Even in a silent period there is no such thing as one-way communication. Children always respond to verbal stimuli in some way. Through such interactions children rapidly internalize a language."

Garcia [9] outlines specific ways, using TPR, that teachers can produce ‘non-verbal responses’ while maintaining the silent period. He uses Asher's term "language-body dialogues" to describe this interaction process... "We know that language-body dialogues play to the right hemisphere of the brain-the uncritical side, which may explain why input in the TPR manner has high believability for students. This is what Asher calls the silent period which is directly analogous to the silent period from infancy to about 18 months when the baby first begins putting words together. During the silent period of infancy, there are thousands of language-body dialogues when adults direct infants with commands such as “Don’t spit out your food” or “Smile at Auntie””. TPR aims to emulate this phase of language development by giving students commands to which they physically respond.

On the other end of the interaction scale, Lucy Tse and Jeff McQuillan [10] advocate the use of a "Narrative Approach" that stresses receptive listening by students. This approach uses storytelling and a silent period to facilitate language acquisition. “All individuals, regardless of language or culture, use stories to communicate, organize, and make sense of experiences. Storytelling helps the ESL students hear and use the target language in a powerful way.” Vocabulary is not pre-taught, it is learned through context. Speaking emerges when students are ready.

Finally, Blaine Ray [11] has developed a method which bridges the gap between interactive methods (TPR) and receptive methods (Narrative Approach). He calls this method "TPR Storytelling”. The teacher tells ‘mini-stories’ while directing students to take the roles of characters in the story. The teacher tells the story while students perform the actions. Next, the teacher re-tells the story while acting out the action him/herself. One important distinction of this method is that important vocabulary is pre-taught using classic TPR methods. Blaine advocates a short silent period of 10-12 hours, though this method is easily adaptable to a silent period of any length.

After reviewing the issues and reflecting on my experiences at AUA, I find that I clearly favor a long silent period. Compared to the 18+ month silent period of infants, Krashen and Asher’s suggested length of 10-12 hours seems inadequate. I believe that Dr. Brown and David Long are on the right track by advocating 6-8 months of silence for foreign language learners, though this amount could probably be cut by 50-60% in my opinion. If interesting methods are used, and the input is comprehensible, there is no need for students to start speaking earlier.

On the issue of interactivity, I favor Asher, Blaine, and Tomioka’s approach. This has been my main frustration as a student at AUA. At the beginning level, the receptive-narrative approach was far too overwhelming. Most of the input was hard to comprehend. I think that classic TPR, which is highly interactive and which mimics the language learning process of infants, is an ideal method for beginning level classes that employ a silent period. At higher levels, TPRS, Focal Skills, the Listening Approach and the Narrative Approach are all excellent ways to provide comprehensible input while maintaining a silent period.


Challenger, Keith. 1998. Silent Listening Attributes. Macquarie University. Sydney.

Brown, J. Marvin. 1988. ALG World. http://www.algworld.com

Long, David. 2003. Just Let Me Try To Say It! ALG World. http://www.algworld.com

Hastings, Ashley. 2003. International Center for Focal Skills. http://www.su.edu/icfs

Asher, James. 1996. Learning Another Language Through Actions. Sky Oaks Productions (http://www.tpr-world.org). Los Gatos, CA

Potovsky, Valerian. 1974. Effect of Delay in Oral Practice at the Beginning of Second Language Learning. Modern Language Journal, 58 (1974): 229-239.

Krashen, Stephen. 1985. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Longman. Also in Ray (2003), pg 4-5.

Tomioka, Taeko. 2003. The Silent Period. http://www.homepage3.nifty.com/park/silent.htm

Garcia, Ramiro. 2001. Instructor's Notebook: How to Apply TPR for Best Results. Sky Oaks Productions, Inc. Los Gatos, CA.

McQuillan, J. & Tse, Lucy. 1998. What is Story?: Using the Narrative Approach in Beginning Language Classrooms. TESOL Journal, vol. 7, no.4, Summer 1998.

Ray, Blaine & Seely, Contee. 2003. Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. Command Performance Language Institute. Berkely, CA.
A Day in the Life of a FOCAL SKILLS Reading Teacher

Copyright © 2003 by Ashley Hastings. You may freely download, print, copy, and distribute this material, but do not alter, add, or remove any content, including this copyright notice.


From 1993 until 1999, Shenandoah University had an intensive ESL program using the FOCAL SKILLS Approach. I joined the SU faculty in the 1995-96 academic year. For the first part of that year, I taught the Reading Module. We were a bit short-handed at the time, so I covered all three hours of Reading every day for one four-week term. (Like all students in the program, Reading students spent the fourth hour of the day in an Elective class.) Virtually all of our students were internationals who had already been admitted to the University and (in most cases) were already taking at least a few credits in their major field (almost all of them were business or music majors).

This vignette is a composite reconstruction from memory. Its purpose is to demonstrate my own approach to the job of teaching Reading within the FS framework. It should be understood that quite a few people have extensive experience as FS Reading teachers, and each of them could no doubt write vignettes that would differ in various ways from mine. Also, no claim is being made about the applicability of this vignette to other ESL or EFL environments. In particular, the principles and techniques exemplified here presuppose the FS placement system, which groups students in such a way that reading is taught intensively only to students whose listening comprehension is no lower than the intermediate level and whose reading comprehension is no higher than the intermediate level. Furthermore, the materials that I used were appropriate for university-level international students, but would certainly not be suitable for all ages, populations, or environments. However, given the right kinds of reading materials, I do believe that the principles that guided my teaching could work in most environments where FS placement is used.

Preparing for Class

My first class starts at 12:30 every afternoon. I have an early lunch and head for my classroom a few minutes before noon, stopping off to pick up the day's bundle of USA Today. This is all I will need for the first two hours of class.

When I reach my classroom, I take one copy of the paper for myself and put the rest on a chair by the door. As the students arrive, they each take a copy and sit down. Some open the paper right away and start browsing; others sit and chat with classmates or munch on portable lunch items they've brought along. While this is going on, I prepare for class.

I never have to write exercises, handouts, or quizzes, nor do I ever have any grading to do. All I need is a few minutes to glance over today's issue and familiarize myself with the headlines and gist of the major articles in each section. The students understand the routine and allow me to work in peace.

First Hour of Class

At 12:30, I call the class to order and make sure everyone has a copy of USA Today. I ask everyone to skim through the news sections and look for an article for us to read together. I give them about three minutes and then ask for suggestions.

One of the students nominates an article about an important political event in his own country. He announces the page number and reads the headline aloud so everyone can locate the article. I then begin a cycle that I call "interactive reading." It consists of three stages: familiarization, clarification, and discussion.

Familiarization. First, I read the article aloud, all the way through, while the students read along silently. I use a rather careful, formal pronunciation, much like a newscaster on the radio, but not too fast for the students to follow. The students' task at this time is to listen, read, and understand as much as they can, but not to ask questions.

Clarification. After we've gone through the article, I go back to the beginning and read through it again, paragraph by paragraph. This time, the students are invited to ask me questions about anything they don't understand. This is the time to deal with vocabulary, collocations, or difficult sentence structures. Since USA Today is written at a middle-school level, the difficulty level is usually just about right for these students' i+1. The students set the agenda here, and I keep fielding their questions until they seem satisfied.

Discussion. The next step is to discuss the content of the article. This is when I get to ask the students questions. After reading through the entire piece twice, I'm ready to pose queries like "Why did the President of the Assembly call for new elections?" and so forth. Such questions call for scanning, inferencing, and other reading strategies, all contextualized and focused on the news article in front of us. We can also explore our opinions, speculate on future developments, etc., if the class seems interested in extending the discussion. At times, we may cycle back to the previous stage of meaning clarification if someone encounters a comprehension problem that interferes with the discussion.

At some point, it will become apparent that the article has been sucked dry. I then give the students a few minutes to skim other articles; I invite another student to nominate one; and the cycle is repeated. In a typical 50-minute hour, we may cover three to five articles, depending on their length and potential to generate discussion.

Second Hour of Class

After a 10-minute break, we turn to the other sections of the paper: sports, business, features, and the like. Class proceeds as before. The students' individual interests often become more apparent here, and there is a certain amount of good-natured competition as various class members try to make sure that the business stories or the entertainment features are not slighted. One article on monetary exchange rates is proposed by a business major from Taiwan, but after we have read only two or three paragraphs I notice some of the music majors rolling their eyes. I ask them what the problem is, and one replies, "This is really too boring!" I raise an eyebrow in the direction of the business major who requested the article, and he admits that even he is not terribly fascinated with the topic, now that he has seen a bit more of the article. We agree to scrap this story and let a music major choose the next one.

If the students run out of suggestions before the end of class, they know that I will subject them to an article that interests me. The O.J. Simpson trial is prominent in the current news, with at least one news item every day devoted to this real-life soap opera. The students are sick of the whole thing, and in order to prevent me from taking them through another article about O.J.'s DNA or SUV, they work hard to find their own material. This has become a running joke which we all seem to enjoy.

When the second hour of class comes to an end, I collect the newspapers so I can take them to a Writing teacher who uses USA Today for an occasional activity in his own class.

Third Hour of Class

It's time for a major change of pace, and even a change of venue. The students and I spend our 10-minute break walking to the Library, where we all take seats in the Curriculum Collection room and prepare for an hour of Free Voluntary Reading. This area is packed with books of all kinds for public school use. My students are permitted to bring anything they want to read, but it is convenient for all of us to gather here because there are so many books close at hand that are within the students' reading abilities. Most do in fact choose books from the Curriculum Collection; they do not seem to find it at all demeaning to read "children's books," especially because I myself have chosen a book rated for 7th and 8th graders. It's my firm policy always to model the kind of reading I expect my students to do, and I set an excellent example by going straight to the shelf that holds my chosen book and taking it to my place at the table, where I open it and start reading.

I have been reading this book for several days now, although it is fairly short and very easy reading. Why have I not finished it yet? The reason becomes apparent when one of the students brings her book over to me and points to a paragraph that she is struggling to understand. It turns out that she is the victim of a vocabulary confusion, mistaking one word that she doesn't know for a similar word that she does know. The misidentified word is crucial to the sense of the paragraph; once the confusion is cleared up, everything is fine. By the time she is back in her chair, another student is asking for help. He has chosen a fantasy novel that appears to be suitable for older teenagers with a taste for this kind of literature; the vocabulary, style, and content are all beyond my student's experience. We discuss the situation quietly and he decides to try a different book. He finds one that interests him and settles down again. Soon a third student comes to me with a question. He is reading a western and has no idea what "Yer dern tootin' I'm mad! I'll settle his hash!" can possibly mean. I translate this into standard English and suggest that he may want to resign himself to only partial comprehension of the dialog in this book. Otherwise, he seems to be happy with his choice and is doing well with it.

Only a few minutes of class remain now, and I still have no idea what's going on in my own book. However, the students don't know this, and it doesn't matter anyway; I'm not really here to catch up on my reading, after all! I open a folder and distribute copies of a "Personal Reading Checklist" for everyone to fill out. This takes very little time; it asks them a few questions like:

What is the title of the book you read today?

How many pages did you read?

Was the book too hard? Too easy? Just about right?

Did you find it interesting?

List a few useful words or phrases that you found in today's reading and would like to remember.

This is purely for their own use. I recommend that they keep their checklists in a folder as a way of tracking what they've done, but this is entirely up to them.

And that's the end of my daily routine as a Reading teacher.


Some teachers, reviewing what I've written here, may be thinking that I scarcely worked at all when I taught FS Reading. Where were the long hours that should have been spent preparing lesson plans, writing quizzes, or grading homework? However, I would submit that I worked very hard while I was in class. I had to think on my feet (even while sitting down), since I never knew from one minute to the next what my students would want to read, or how they would understand it, or what questions they would ask. I had to be alert and mindful at all times.

Some might also ask, "How does this constitute a reading class? Where's the syllabus? What were the students actually learning, anyway?" My answer would be that they were acquiring English and developing reading skills. Rather than working systematically from point to point in obedience to a master plan drawn up in advance, my students were exploring each new instance of authentic English as it came their way. The sheer volume of reading that they did over time guaranteed that they would encounter a representative sample of written English; the variety of activities that we pursued guaranteed that they would practice many different strategies for reading and processing information. Listening to me read aloud gave them extensive demonstrations of how written English is "chunked" and pronounced. Reading silently during Free Voluntary Reading gave them extended opportunities to read at their own pace and for their own purposes. All these experiences were overflowing with comprehensible input. All in all, I would describe this multifaceted approach to reading instruction as a very effective, practical, and enjoyable way to help ESL students improve their reading proficiency.

These efforts were rewarded when the students took the Reading Assessment at the end of the four-week period. The average gain score on the test was 16 points (corrected for guessing), or 4 points per week. When the same test was administered (pre- and post-test design) to students in a respected standard (non-FOCAL SKILLS) university intensive ESL program, the average gain was only 8 points over a 6-week period, or 1.3 points per week. My students progressed three times faster than the comparison group.
And the Backwash Keeps Getting Deeper...
Copyright © 2002 by Ashley Hastings and Brenda Murphy. All rights reserved.

How did we get to this point? The original purpose of the TOEFL was to give universities a convenient and objective way to estimate the English language ability of applicants whose first language was not English. This was motivated by a desire to make sure that those non-native speakers who were accepted as students would have the linguistic ability to succeed in their studies. It was never intended that the TOEFL should itself become the object of study or give rise to the kind of obsessive, mind-numbing, time-wasting drudgery represented by the elaborate, cleverly designed, but fundamentally appalling program described above.

No one should object to a practice TOEFL or two, or a little advice designed to help TOEFL candidates approach the test in a positive frame of mind. However, it is probably inevitable that a high-stakes test will stimulate the growth of a test-preparation industry. The designers of the TOEFL and the designers of TOEFL preparation programs are engaged in a prolonged game in which TOEFL tries to create less coachable tests and other organizations try to figure out ways to coach them. The losers in this game are the candidates who waste time, money, and energy learning test strategies that they will only use once or twice, instead of acquiring more of the English that they will need for higher education and future careers. The universities also lose, because their admission process is cheapened and distorted.
Thoughts on the Use of Authentic Materials
Copyright © 2002 by Ashley Hastings and Brenda Murphy. All rights reserved.

The value of authentic materials

Authentic materials that could potentially be used in second language classes are everywhere: books, newspapers, magazines, videos, etc. Their abundance is one of their most attractive features. While a small bookshelf can probably hold all of the textbooks that a typical teacher could find for a given course, an ordinary school library could not begin to find room for all of the authentic materials that might be used.

Furthermore, most of the materials that ordinary people seek for entertainment and enlightenment are authentic. People enjoy authentic materials and eagerly devote hours of their time to reading or viewing them. They provide a depth of interest and a breadth of variety that cannot be found in even the most outstanding textbook series.

The value of authentic materials in second language teaching is beyond question. However, we cannot just pull them off the shelf on the way to class and expect them to magically create wonderful lessons.

Plans are needed

If we have no plan for using authentic materials, we are likely to waste time and create an impression of aimlessness. We must have clear, deliberate goals in mind, and specific plans for reaching those goals. We must structure class time in ways that make sense. It would be very unsound to simply show a movie or hand out a story to read, without doing anything with the material. As teachers, it is our job to add value to the materials in some way. If we fail to do so, our students and our supervisors will justly conclude that we are not living up to our responsibilities, but instead are using the materials as entertainment. We may be accused of "baby-sitting" instead of teaching.

Plans, therefore, are essential. However, this does not necessarily mean that elaborate, detailed lesson plans are required in order to use authentic materials.

Elaborate plans may be counterproductive

If we insist on creating or finding elaborate lesson plans for using authentic materials, there are at least two potentially serious drawbacks. First, we may not be able to make much use of authentic materials, since prepared pedagogical activities to accompany them are scarce and take a lot of time to create. As Larimer and Schleicher (1999) note, "one of the major barriers to [using authentic materials] is the scarcity of authentic materials that have been analyzed for pedagogical purposes." (p. vi). Indeed, the major goal of their book is to furnish examples of activities that can be used with various kinds of authentic materials; many of these activities require worksheets, study sheets, handouts, illustrations, etc., all of which demand preparation. While the contents of this book are valuable and welcome, they do not reduce the amount of time and effort needed to produce new activities for new authentic materials. There is, after all, a reason why mass-produced textbooks and workbooks are popular: they save time and labor. Many teachers, faced with the task of developing activities for authentic materials, may simply decide not to use them.

Second, even if we can find or develop the pedagogical materials, we run the risk of nullifying the spontaneity, interest, and authenticity that attracted us to these materials in the first place. We should bear in mind that when real people use authentic materials in real life, they do not do "activities" or fill out worksheets. How many people would go to movies or read popular novels if they had to "write examples of words you missed in your dictation" (Larimer and Schleicher 1999, p. 11) or "skim the article and answer the following questions" (p. 54)? This is not to challenge the potential pedagogical usefulness of such activities; the point rather is that authentic materials, by their very nature, were not designed to be used in these ways. Many students (and teachers, for that matter) may tend to view the activities as the focus of the lesson, with the authentic materials themselves serving as mere pedagogical accessories that have no intrinsic value or interest of their own. At this point, they become functionally indistinguishable from traditional, inauthentic textbook materials.

Excessively elaborate lesson plans and activities for authentic materials may therefore detract from their authenticity or even discourage us from using them at all. A different approach is needed.

Authentic activities for authentic materials.

What is needed is a set of pedagogical techniques that will enable teachers to make effective, structured, purposeful use of authentic materials, but that do not require elaborate preparations. Such techniques should involve activities that blend naturally and seamlessly with the authentic materials themselves, enhancing and highlighting the materials rather than analyzing and manipulating them. These techniques should be informed by our knowledge of language acquisition processes and principles, and should be based on pedagogical skills that teachers can develop and apply effectively within the the time and energy constraints of the actual classroom environment. As a rule of thumb, we would suggest that "authentic activities" (that is, activities that resemble the kinds of things people normally do with authentic materials) may often bring us closer to the kinds of pedagogical techniques that we have in mind.

Below, we give two examples of lesson plans that involve elaborate, relatively inauthentic activities to accompany authentic materials. In both cases, we suggest alternative lesson plans using more authentic activities. Both examples are taken from Larimer and Schleicher (1999).

Example 1: Video.

On pages 34-36, Larimer and Schleicher present an authentic video lesson plan by Eve Connell. Here is a summary of the recommended procedure:
teacher finds the Seinfeld episode "Kiss Hello" (or a similar episode) and selects 6 or 7 very short clips showing greetings

teacher prepares a worksheet with a vocabulary list and questions

class discusses greeting customs in various countries

class brainstorms a list; teacher puts in on the board

teacher plays video clips with sound off

students do the handout

students share ideas

teacher plays clips again with sound on, repeating as much as the class wants

students check their own worksheets

class discusses and summarizes what they have seen

This is intended to take one hour of class time and requires about one hour of preparation by the teacher.

Such a lesson might work very well. However, it is remarkable that the amount of authentic video the class actually sees and hears is very small in comparison with the amount of time that is spent on the elaborate activities prepared by the teacher. Six or seven brief clips of greetings might amount to only 30 seconds or so of video, which accounts for only 1 percent of the class time. This almost looks like a plan for using as little authentic material as possible!

A more authentic video lesson plan

Instead of extracting tiny segments, why not show the entire episode? This would take full advantage of the story line and embed the greetings in a meaningful context, making their significance easier to understand. If the students are at a relatively low level, the teacher can pause frequently to narrate and paraphrase, using the FOCAL SKILLS Movie Technique (Hastings 1997; Hastings and Murphy 1997), providing a lot of highly contextualized comprehensible input. If the students can understand the dialogue without much help, the focus of the class discussion can be on the personalities of the characters and the cultural implications of their interactions, including but not limited to greetings.

This way of using the video episode would present perhaps 20 minutes of authentic material (assuming commercials are skipped), provide much richer comprehensible input, and involve more authentic activities than Connell's plan. The teacher preparation time would be about the same, or perhaps even less, since it would require little more than a thorough preview of the episode.

Example 2: Newspaper articles.

Larimer and Schleicher (pp. 52-54) present another contribution by Eve Connell -- a lesson plan for using a newpaper article. The procedure outlined includes:
teacher finds an interesting article

teacher prepares a vocabulary list and a worksheet with questions

students read the article

students do the worksheet

students write a summary

students discuss worksheets and summaries

students discuss the ideas in the article

teacher lists the ideas on the board

The estimated class time is 45 minutes to an hour, and the preparation time is 20 minutes.

All of these activities are reasonable and worthwhile. Notice, though, that only one piece of authentic material (in this case, an article containing no more than 300 words) is encountered during what amounts to an hour of class.

A more authentic newspaper lesson plan

Suppose the teacher were to spend 20 minutes finding several interesting articles from the newspaper, with no vocabulary list or worksheet. Each article could be read aloud by the teacher during class, with the students following along in their copies. This would give them excellent input with normal intonation and pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names. The students could then ask questions about any words or phrases that puzzled them. The teacher could lead a class discussion of the content of the article, following up on whatever points were of particular interest to the students.

These activities would be more authentic and spontaneous than most of Connell's lesson plan. They are more learner-centered, because the students themselves select the vocabulary and ideas to be addressed. Furthermore, by skipping the worksheets and related activities, it is likely that the teacher could present several articles in an hour-long class, exposing the students to as many as a thousand words of authentic material rather than the 300 that Connell's plan calls for. All of this would require about the same teacher preparation time (20 minutes or so).

Taking authenticity seriously

We appreciate the skill and professionalism of all the lesson plans in Larimer and Schleicher (1999), and we consider them to be a great step forward in the use of authentic materials. Nevertheless, we detect in some of them a reluctance to trust the materials -- an unwillingness to "let go" and allow full contact between the students and the language. When authentic materials are sliced, diced, and doled out in small doses to be washed down by worksheets and lists, it seems to us that the materials are compromised and their potential is diluted. If the strengths of authentic materials are their interest, variety, spontaneity, and abundance, then we would urge all language teachers to develop ways to bring these strengths more fully into the classroom. We believe that this will require teachers to overcome the tendency to analyze, predigest, and supplement the materials (treating them, in effect, as if they were intrinsically boring, obscure, and scarce) and instead to focus on the materials themselves. Our own use of authentic materials has convinced us that this approach is not only possible, but extremely rewarding.


Hastings, A. 1997. Movies and listening comprehension in FOCAL SKILLS programs. http://www.su.edu/icfs/movfs.htm

Hastings, A. and B. Murphy. 1997. Making movies comprehensible to ESL listeners. http://www.su.edu/icfs/movcomfs.htm

Larimer, R. E., and L. Schleicher (eds). 1999. New ways in using authentic materials in the classroom. Alexandria, Virginia: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Effortless Effort
by Alan Watts

So “Wu wei” means “don’t interfere”, “don’t strive”. Really, the best meaning of wu wei is “don’t force it”... This is like sailing a boat. It is more intelligent to sail a boat than to row it, even though sailing is a lazier way of doing it.
Second Language Acquisition
Second Language Learning

Copyright © 1981 Stephen Krashen
First printed edition 1981 by Pergamon Press Inc

There is reason to suppose that caretaker speech is an excellent teaching language, even though it may not always seem to be at first examination. According to the literature on caretaker speech (my primary sources include the summary in Clark and Clark, 1977, and the superb collection edited by Snow and Ferguson, 1977), caretaker speech has the following characteristics:

It obeys the "here and now" principle: caretakers talk about what is going on in the immediate environment of the young child at that moment. I think that what is significant about this principle is that the child is given extralinguistic support to aid in his comprehension of what is said to him.
It is syntactically simple, and becomes complex as the child gains in linguistic maturity. This characteristic is not as simple as that, however, Caretakers do not simply aim their input at the "next" structure, the one that the child is due to acquire next. Rather, caretaker input appears to be "roughly tuned" to the child's linguistic ability--we see positive, but not strikingly high correlations between linguistic input complexity and linguistic competence in children (Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman, 1977; Cross, 1977; Chapter 9, this volume).
Caretaker speech is communication. As mentioned above, the purpose of caretaker speech is not language teaching, it is to convey messages and often to get the child to behave in a certain way. It turns out to be the case that caretaker speech is effective in encouraging language acquisition (at least the literature is consistent with this view; Cross, 1977; Newport et al., 1977).

From these characteristics, it can be hypothesized that intake is first of all input that is understood.

Simple "free conversation" will often fail as optimal input, as it is often not understood. The failure of free conversation to qualify as intake implies that second language teaching involves more than just talking to students about topics of interest, something the profession has known since its beginning. Administrators, however, sometimes feel that being a native speaker of a language qualifies one to be a teacher of that language. This analysis shows why this is not necessarily true.

Mechanical drill also fails as optimal intake for acquisition. Mechanical drill is activity in which the primary focus is on the form of the language being used rather than its communicative intent. Here is a sample: given the sentence "John is a student", change it to the negative ("John isn't a student"). Whether anyone is interested in the fact that John is or is not a student is, of course, not an issue. Thus, while mechanical drills may be understood, they are understood only in a trivial sense. Evidence (Lee, McCune, and Patton, 1970) is available that suggests strongly that students do not pay much attention to repetitive drill after a few repetitions, and it is doubtful that the meaning strikes very "deeply" (in the sense of Stevick, 1976).

Perhaps the correct generalization is that the best activities are those that are natural, interesting, and understood. When these requirements are met, and where there is a great deal of input of this nature, it may be the case that i +1 will "naturally" be covered and reviewed many times over, and progress in language acquisition will result.

In a recent paper, I suggest another way of obtaining intake outside the classroom, a way of encouraging the outside world to cooperate with the language teaching profession (Krashen, 1978e): "Language Learning Buttons" would alert native speakers to the linguistic needs of acquirers--a red button, designated "ESL Learner 1" would mean a beginning ESL student, a yellow button designated "ESL Learner 2" an intermediate, etc. Native speakers would hopefully provide the bearer of such a button with simpler input (and perhaps a friendlier response).

Returning to the classroom, in recent years some novel ideas have been suggested that encourage language acquisition by providing intake. Terrell (1977) has proposed a method which he calls the "Natural Approach", in which class time essentially consists of communicative activity, with the teacher speaking only in the target language, and the students responding in either the target language or their first language. Students' errors are completely ignored during this activity, unless there is some communication failure.

A USC graduate student, John Cromshaw, has also come up with an interesting innovation which he calls "Intercambio". In intercambio, as it is practiced at USC, Americans studying Spanish as a foreign language are teamed with Spanish-speaking ESL students, and are encouraged to converse on various topics. The rule is: speak your own language! [Crosstalk] Cromshaw reports that even less advanced students exchange enormous amounts of information with each other, and often, involuntarily, begin to speak in the target language. These approaches have been validated only informally, but early reports of their success have been quite encouraging.

The use of techniques such as Asher's "total physical response" (Asher, 1966, 1969) may also provide useful amounts of intake in the classroom, In Asher's approach, students remain silent in early stages, but are required to obey teacher commands in the target language, commands that require a "total physical response", beginning with simple imperatives ("sit down") to more complex sentences ("If John ran to the blackboard, run after him and hit him with your book"). There is some experimental evidence in Asher's papers that "TPR" does indeed work: foreign language students, after 32 hours of TPR, had significantly better listening comprehension scores than students in "ordinary" classes after 150 hours, and scores on other tests were about the same. Clearly, teacher input that stimulates a total physical response will be close to, if not totally intake: it is understood, at an appropriate level, and natural, its goal being communication.

What may be the case is that speaking, engaging in conversation, encourages intake. "Eavesdropping" (Schumann and Schumann, 1977) may provide the acquirer with a certain amount of intake, but actual conversation, in which the acquirer has at least some control of the topic and in which the acquirer's conversational partner is making some effort at making himself understood, may provide more intake.

One of the most interesting case histories in the second language acquisition literature deals with two young acquirers of English as a second language, one successful and one unsuccessful. Paul, the successful acquirer, was 5 years old when he was first studied by E. Hatch's student, Huang (1971). According to Wagner-Gough and Hatch (1975), at least some of Paul's progress can be attributed to the fact that he had the benefit of input that was more appropriate for language acquisition.

Such simple input is fixed on the "here and now" and contains a "limited body of graded language data", according to Wagner-Gough and Hatch.

Ricardo, the unsuccessful acquirer, was 13 years old when he was studied by Butterworth (1972), another student of Hatch, Despite the fact that Ricardo had been in the United States only a few months, he had to participate in discussions that were quite complex, involving topics displaced in time and space and often using advanced syntactical constructions.

Wagner-Gough and Hatch suggest that it was this input difference, rather than the age difference between Paul and Ricardo, that was the fundamental reason for their differential success in acquiring English as a second language.

[Other Points]:

"Foreign-student peer groups" are very effective at providing comprehensible input. (Social groups for/of students).

Caretaker speech typically contains high proportions of imperatives and questions [ala TPR], while teacher-talk (Trager, 1978) and foreigner-talk (Freed, 1980) appear to contain a larger percentage of declaratives. Is this a crucial difference?