A young teacher who is new to TPRS recently posted saying that she had tried her first story. It went well with her best class which is always focused, slightly less well with another class and was a complete flop with her largest, most difficult class, where everyone was speaking in English and carrying on side conversations.

This is a familiar story. Teachers try TPRS, which is to say they try to have a conversation with their class using Comprehensible Input, and the class gets out of hand. Suddenly there are no rules, no barriers and the kids seem to feel that anything goes. Many teachers give up at this point and more experienced teachers say “Discipline first, instruction second.” And before they begin attempting a story in class they establish various systems and rules so that their students know what is acceptable and what is not. Ben Slavic suggests that we use most of the first trimester creating a class culture that will allow us to ask stories and stay in bounds.

When we center the class on communicating with our students there is a certain undeniable leveling effect. The teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage.” We’re inviting them to join the conversation, to contribute their two cents’ worth. If they have never been asked to do this before, they may see it as an open door to stampede through. Why are worksheets so popular with language teachers? Because they give the teacher quiet time and a sure-fire way of canalizing a class that is getting out of hand.

Is there another way? I recently wrote about Restorative Classroom Management. Can we cultivate a classroom culture that will allow our students to participate in a story, or any conversation, without having to bribe them with participation points or to threaten them with punishments if they break the rules?

I always found that when things got out of hand in one of my classes, the kids were actually almost as unhappy about it as I was. They were perfectly aware that a class where people were shouting, defying the teacher and carrying on side conversations was a class where no one was learning. So if I sat down on top of my desk and waited for complete silence, I eventually got it. Then I would speak to them, very quietly, so that everyone had to be silent to hear what I was saying. I would explain to them what my expectations were, but I would also explain why I had those expectations. And I would ask them to tell me why it was difficult for them to meet my expectations. And I would really listen to them. Listen in order to learn and better understand. (Frequently in this kind of conversation we are already preparing our rebuttal instead of really listening.)

As a result of this conversation with my class, I would often recognize that my expectations needed to be tweaked, and my students, if they felt that I was being fair, would change their behavior. With some classes, these conversations were frequent, but if I maintained my attitude of being both fair and firm in my expectations, there was progress. This kind of class culture can only exist where there is mutual respect.

Experienced teachers know that misbehavior from students is often a reaction to being asked to do something that they feel is beyond their abilities. Most students would rather be considered trouble-makers than stupid. When introducing TPRS, your students, used to traditional methods, may believe that they are being expected to answer questions that they don’t know the answer to, that they have to use perfect grammar and complete sentences, and that they need vocabulary that they have not been taught. Of course they then resort to English or their native language. The teacher must be very clear about her expectations. She needs to reassure them that short one word answers are excellent, that they can guess and make up solutions and use Brand names. With the class she needs to decide how they can suggest something that they don’t know how to say in the target language. Draw a picture? With TPRS her only requirement is that they listen attentively and show her when they don’t understand. Whether or not they understand is her responsibility, not theirs. If they don’t understand, she must adapt her language so that it becomes comprehensible. Once students really grasp this idea, that they will not be judged by how well they understand, but by how well they listen, that their comprehension is the teacher’s responsibility, their attitude will change. When I see that students haven’t understood me, I always apologize for not being more comprehensible.

The basis of restorative classroom management is building trust. If students understand that the teacher has changed the way she is teaching so that they can be successful, if they see that she is not asking them to do something that they are not able to do, if they understand why it’s important that they listen rather than talk, they will begin to trust the teacher.

If the teacher recognizes their effort, however small, and shows that she appreciates it, they will want to offer more. If they become distracted and start to regress, the teacher needs to start over, giving them another chance to focus and progress. There’s no magic cure for bad behavior that has been allowed to develop over time, but I’ve noticed that when students talk about teachers that they respect, the quality they are most likely to mention is patience.

So my advice to teachers who want to try TPRS is to begin by explaining to your students why you have decided to use this method, why you are convinced that it is more efficient than whatever you were doing before. Then take the time to make them understand exactly what their responsibility is and what your job is.

When you are ready to begin, go slowly. PQA is a wonderful way of preparing students for stories, getting to know them better and building trust. Make it clear that their answers don’t have to be the truth. Encourage them to exaggerate and invent. All my students drove Ferraris and Jaguars. They played soccer with Lionel Messi and ate hamburgers with Bill Gates. When students are enjoying PQA and you have a few stock characters, you’re ready to try stories. Don’t feel that you have to “get through” a story. If you’re asking hundreds of questions and your students are engaged, it doesn’t matter whether or not you get to the end. You can continue the story the next day or you can write it up and finish it yourself and give it to them as a reading. You’ll see that they are more interested in reading it than in any text in their manual.

What if a story bombs? You can always wrap it up in one sentence, kill the main character or have him win the lottery. The End. And you move on to a reading or start over. The only problem is when your students are not engaged. Then you have to ask yourself some tough questions and find out why. If you don’t have the answer, ask them.

You may want to try Movie Talk to give them a change of pace and give you time to regroup. The current generation is programmed to be attentive to screens.

In some classes there may be one, two or three students who influence the rest of the class and are leading a mini-revolt against you. In “Better than Carrots or Sticks” on page 83 there is a good description of how to handle such students. Once again, it’s a question of developing trust. To quote:
“One way to build trust is by employing the 2×10 strategy: spend 2 minutes talking with a student about anything other than school for 10 consecutive days.”

Sound too easy? Well, it may not be that easy to find something that sincerely interests you to talk about with the student, and of course, if you are not sincere, the exercise is pointless. But if you can do it, you will be amazed by the results, long before the ten days are up.

In conclusion, my advice to the teacher who tried TPRS with mixed results is to reflect on how she presented it to the class. Do they understand why she changed her methods? Do they really understand what her expectations for them are? Has she established a relationship of mutual trust and respect with her students? If she can answer these three questions in the affirmative, then she should give it another try, being careful to give them time to adapt to the change progressively. Then, hopefully, she will know that magic moment when the entire class is silent, totally engaged in the story they are helping you create, hanging on your next word.

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