My Encounter with Stephen Krashen

This is the third year that I have traveled to Paris for the annual TESOL Colloquium to present TPRS. The other two years I was a speaker and had a small room where I could explain the method to anyone who wanted to come in. The first year there were about 20 people and lots of empty chairs. But two of the people there came to the first Agen Workshop I organized in 2013. Last year I had a bigger room and a better time slot and they had to bring in more chairs and I ran out of handouts. My title was: How to Fit Krashen into the Classroom.

This year I was not speaking, but Stephen Krashen was the plenary speaker. As a matter of fact he was giving three plenary conferences during the three days of the Colloquium. To be sure that TPRS was represented, I rented a stand to answer questions. I didn’t have much to put on a stand besides flyers for the 2015 workshop, so I brought along some books by Ben Slavik, some collections of story scripts, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, and photocopies of the Verb Flower to hand out. Since the only tea you can get at these things is the horrible stuff from dispenser machines, I brought my teapot, my Earl Grey and some cups too. Carole and Tamara decided to come with me. Cheryl and Lillian came from Strasbourg to help me keep the stand.

Friday evening I was sitting at our stand, when two men walked in and I heard one say, “Where’s the show?” I recognized Stephen and told him, “You’re the show,” and introduced myself. He was glad to see me, since Karen Rowan had told him I’d be there. I hadn’t found any Starbucks coffee, but he graciously accepted a cup of tea. Stephen’s talk that evening was charming and witty, but it was also a strong defense of acquisition through compelling, comprehensible input, using examples from his own life. To my delight he mentioned TPRS several times as the most effective method for acquiring a language that he knew of, and asked me to stand up so that people would know who to ask about it. He was so generous with his praise that later some people wanted to know if we had sponsored him. He also named the enemy, skill based learning, which explained some of the long faces we could see in the audience.

Back at the stand, we had lots of inquiries and sometimes there were three or four of us busy answering questions. Several people said they wanted to come to the workshop this summer. The next day I was only able to get away for one presentation about inner motivation. I was disappointed to see that the speaker was reading both from several pages of notes and from his power point slides. I never use power points myself, simply because I know the gremlins will take over and it won’t work and I’ll be fussing with cables and flash drives and switches all the time. Also because I remain attached to the idea that it is simple courtesy to look at the people who have come to hear you. The speaker made several references to Krashen and I had the impression that after hearing him he had rewritten his entire presentation. Or, knowing Krashen was the plenary speaker, he may have intended all along to acknowledge his ideas.

At first he seemed to be using Krashen as support, but he eventually came to a parting of the ways. My impression (which may be wrong, I wasn’t taking notes) is that he was saying that inner motivation will lead the learner to practice and build his skills. I caught a whiff of Protestant ethics. No pain, no gain. And I think this is where so many teachers find it difficult to accept Krashen. Rightfully proud of their own linguistic abilities, which they worked hard to develop, they instinctively reject the idea of painless acquisition through compelling comprehensible input.

Saturday evening Dr. Krashen discussed case histories of animals that have acquired language, demonstrating that comprehensible input was more efficient than direct instruction in every known case. Sunday he touched on some of the controversies and explained his position. I particularly enjoyed his defense of students who seem to be looking for answers on the ceiling. If you ever have a chance of hearing him, don’t miss it. He is a very effective speaker and several people on our team remarked that there were fewer long faces and more smiles on Sunday. After his talk, Jane Ryder, vice-president of TESOL France, thanked him and said that she felt that she had been present at a historic moment of change in language teaching in France.I hope she is a true prophet.

Why is Stephen Krashen controversial? It’s often the first reaction to any mention of his name. “He’s very controversial.” Yet if you simply describe his hypotheses without names or sources, people tend to consider them simple common sense. I note that the man has strong political beliefs and opinions that he openly defends. His position on bilingual education programs, his defense of public librairies and more recently his condemnation of high stakes testing have made him unpopular with powerful and influential people.

Many of the more vicious attacks on Krashen were sponsored by those who did not like his stand on bilingual education in California. I’ve even come across the rather preposterous claim that his theories have been proven false by the fact that the bilingual program was voted out. I can conceive that many people didn’t want to pay tax money for a program that enabled immigrant children to be successful in school. How does that invalidate the program they didn’t want to finance?

Looking for an objective, neutral discussion of Krashen, I found “How Languages are Learned” by Lightbrown and Spada, Oxford University Press, Krashen’s theories are more or less accurately described, then dismissed with “they haven’t been proven”. The authors failed to mention that they haven’t been disproven either. Then they went on to discuss other theories, equally unproven, but which they seemed to find more congenial. Looking further, I find that Nina Spada is an advocate of form focused instruction, whereas Dr. Krashen holds that form is acquired when we focus on content.

My own personal position is that all of his hypotheses accurately describe and explain what I encounter in the classroom every day. We have all met that affective filter and seen students be transformed when it goes down. We all know the difference between what students have learned for a test and what they have acquired and can produce spontaneously. We all have heard that monitor in our head, correcting our grammar (usually just after we said it wrong). We all know that some of the structures which we introduce on Day One, Lesson One, will not be acquired until our students have become fluent speakers. And we have, I hope, all had quiet students who spoke very little but listened intently and one day started speaking with ease. The truth is that Krashen’s work is monumental and it’s hard to ignore him, but it’s also hard to adapt standard language teaching practice, whether it be traditional, audio-lingual, communicative, form-focused or problem/project based, to his hypothesis. James Asher was the first to apply Comprehensible Input to teaching and came up with TPR. Blaine Ray took it further with TPR Storytelling. People on the moretprs list-serve tried it in their classrooms and have been sharing feedback, refining and adding to it ever since. Teachers who are not desperate enough, or honest enough or brave enough to question what they have been doing in their classrooms for many years find it easier to dismiss Comprehensible Input, saying “His theories haven’t been proven,” If you reply, “nor have they been disproven and they’ve been around for a long time”, they change the subject. Well, I believe that my students validate Krashen’s theories every hour I spend with them.

Teachers who have used comprehensible input strategies in the classroom are a bit like the sailors who went around the world with Magellan. They may not be able to explain why or how or use the right vocabulary to talk about their experience, but they know the world is round.

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