Story Listening: What is it?

The latest buzz in the TPRS world is Story Listening, a method to “provide massive, meaningful comprehensible input” developed by Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki, a small gentle woman with a lovely smile and something of a malicious twinkle in her eye. Her name was familiar to many people in the TPRS community because of her research on the benefits of self-selected reading in language acquisition, research that is often cited by Dr. Stephen Krashen.

Dr. Mason is an associate professor of English at Shitennoji University in Japan, where she has been using her Story Listening method for many years. She uses simple stories, often folk tales, adapting vocabulary to a level that is comprehensible to her students. She establishes meaning through sketches, translations, synonyms, whatever strategy seems appropriate. After the students have heard the story she may give them a written version to read at home. She may ask them to write a summary of the story in their native language to evaluate to what degree they understood what they heard. As Dr. Mason points out, it “tells the teacher how well she did that day.” This is all the students are asked to do. The teacher’s goal is to furnish her students with a great deal of comprehensible input in a way that is pleasant for both students and teacher while requiring no expensive textbook, no technical support, no computers and very little preparation.
Dr. Mason has used Story Listening as her only curriculum for many years and has seen her students progress from mid-beginning to high intermediate in a few years. Through research studies on the benefits of Story Listening, she estimates that first year students can acquire 6-15 vocabulary words per hour of Story Listening. As their competence improves, their rate of acquisition accelerates.

Story Listening is not TPRS and it owes nothing to the “story asking” technique developed by Blaine Ray. Dr. Mason was not at all familiar with TPRS until Dr. Krashen urged her to learn more about it and she came to the five day TPRS workshop in Agen, France in July 2016. Agen is much smaller than the national conferences in the United States and the schedule allows participants time to get to know each other and share insights and impressions over delicious French meals. Kathrin Shechtman, Alice Ayel, Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden had the opportunity to meet Dr. Mason and listened to her explain her Story Listening method, which she demonstrated during her plenary session on the last day of the workshop. When Kathrin returned to Germany, she began trying Story Listening with their own students. She loved the results. With the excitement and enthusiasm of new converts, Kathrin and Alice made videos and began talking about it at every opportunity. Soon other well-known CI teachers were experimenting and some found Story Listening easier and less demanding on both teacher and students than normal TPRS story asking.

Dr. Mason has demonstrated Story Listening on her website : She has also written a description in an appendix in Ben Slavic’s latest book, A Natural Approach to Stories: A Happier Way to Teach Languages, available on the Teachers’ Discovery website.
She returned to  the Agen Workshop in 2017 and again demonstrated her technique, then she visited Kathrin in Ehrlangen, Germany, where a one day workshop on Story Listening was held.

For those who wish to try Story Listening, Dr. Mason advises them to begin with a short version of a well-known folk tale that will last no longer than fifteen minutes. Once students are used to the technique, the stories can be longer. If the story is already familiar to students they will have fewer difficulties understanding it. Folk tales, almost by definition, are compelling even when they are well-known and have been heard many times before. Support is given as needed in the form of drawings, pictures, realia, synonyms, words written on the board and translations in order to make the story comprehensible. Later, as students adapt to the new method, they will need less and less support as they become absorbed in the stories. If they become restless and inattentive, it is probably caused by the teacher’s failure to be comprehensible, so she needs to backtrack to clarify what they have not understood. After the session, the teacher can give the students a written version of the story to read.

What objections have been raised to Story Listening? I am addressing this question because of a rather heated debate on the moretprs list serve between proponents of Story Listening and the defenders of standard TPRS. One of the objections to Story Listening was about whether or not SL teachers checked for comprehensibility. TPRS teachers are trained to ask students, “What did I just say?” and verify frequently that learners are comprehending the input they are receiving. Students are asked to signal when they don’t understand and to show with their fingers how much they have understood. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to be so blatant about checking for comprehension. In any communicative situation, listeners have many ways of signaling that they don’t understand whenever the speaker is not being comprehensible. Eye contact, body language and interest are adequate signs of comprehension when the teacher is tuned in to them. Asking students to write a summary in their native language shows the teacher exactly how effective she has been and permits her to readjust the input for the next session if necessary. It was established in the discussion that Story Listening is first and foremost COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT, as one would expect from Dr. Mason, an ardent disciple of Dr. Krashen. Susie Gross has showed us that there is more than one way to peel a banana, and teachers may check for comprehension in other ways than “What did I just say?”

I would also like to point out that as TPRS spreads beyond the borders of the USA, it will encounter cultural differences in students. When I first saw a demonstration of TPRS (Thank you, Jeff Moore) my reaction was “This will never work with French lycée students.” It did, but it took some adaptation. Story listening may be better adapted to some cultures in which students are not used to being as active as American students yearn to be.

Another criticism of Story Listening was the lack of targeting. Many teachers are required by their schools to have goals, specific vocabulary and grammatical structures that students are supposed to acquire. TPRS teachers often debate how many targets to introduce in a lesson and many consider targeting as an essential part of TPRS, although Blaine Ray does not mention targets in his definition of the method. Dr. Krashen, on the other hand, has often eschewed targeting specific vocabulary or grammatical structures, pointing out that by definition high frequency items will occur naturally in input and will be acquired when the learner is ready. Dr. Terry Waltz, who favors targeting, affirms that classrooms are an artificial environment with severe time constraints, so teachers must optimize the immersion experience by making sure that essential structures and vocabulary are acquired, which necessitates massive repetitions of targeted words and structures.

Dr. Krashen weighed in on the moretprs discussion by suggesting that we distinguish between what he calls T1, Targeting One, T2, Targeting Two, and Non-targeting. The article entitled Three Options: Non-targeted input, and two kinds of targeted input can be found on his website. I found this distinction extremely helpful as a guide in my teaching practice and I would like to include it here.

“We can distinguish two kinds of targeting: The first is consistent with the “skill-building” view of language development and the second is consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis.
Targeting 1 (T1):
1. The goal is full mastery of the rule or vocabulary in a short time, so complete that it can be easily retrieved and used in production.
2. The source of the items to be targeted is external, from a syllabus made by others (not the teacher). The teacher’s job when doing T1 is to find a story or activity that will provide extra exposure to and use of the target items. Thus, Targeting 1 is a way of “contextualizing” grammar or vocabulary.
3. T1 consists of “practice” in using the target items. “Practice” generally consists of skill-building, first consciously learning the new items, and then “automatizing” them by using them in output, and getting corrected to fine-tune conscious knowledge of the rule or meaning of the word. “Automatizing” means converting explicit, or consciously learned competence into implicit, or acquired competence. It has been argued that T1 does not result in the automatization or acquisition of language (Krashen, 1982, VanPatten, 2016). The best we can hope for with T1 is highly monitored performance.

Targeting 2 (T2):
1. Unlike T1, the goal of T2 is comprehension of the story or activity, not full mastery of the targeted item in a short time. It can be done in a variety of ways, e.g. via visual content (e.g. pictures), translation.
3. The source of the items to be targeted is internal; e.g. the story.
4. This kind of targeting generally results in partial acquisition, enough to understand the text. Full acquisition of the targeted item develops gradually, when the item appears in the input again and again, in other stories or activities, assuming that the targeted item is at the students’ i+1.

In conclusion Dr. Krashen says that his previous arguments against targeting are arguments against Targeting 1 and not against Targeting 2. Frankly it was a relief to know that Dr. Krashen does not condemn all forms of targeting. As an independent tutor, I do not have to follow any curriculum, but experience has taught me that certain apparently simple structures are extremely difficult for my francophone students. Once they are acquired, the students are able to progress much more rapidly and easily, so when those structures come up, I will circle them and try to give them a bit of a shine in order to reinforce them without taking away from our focus on the compelling message. I don’t T1 target them, but when they come up, which they often do, I circle or “sand” them as Laurie Clarcq describes light circling. I think of it as making them shine a bit, so that students’ minds are more likely to notice them and get a bit closer to acquiring them.

Personally, in my humble opinion, the entire debate about targeting is about whether the glass is half full or half empty. Beginners need some targeting simply because it’s easier to learn to swim in a small pool than in the middle of the ocean. Dr. Krashen often cites Linda Li as an admirable example of a TPRS teacher. Twice I have been able to observe her Mandarin classes for beginners such as myself and she made no mystery about the words that she was targeting. They were posted before she began the lesson and the repetitions were massive. Her magic is that everything she said was interesting and compelling and she was able to make us laugh as she repeated a word for the 78th time. TPRS is a joy to watch when it is practiced by skilled teachers such as Blaine Ray, Linda Li, Jason Fritz, Karen Rowan, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Ben Slavic and Susie Gross. Some targeting of basic forms, such as what Terry Waltz calls the super seven verbs, seems necessary with beginners.

But once the foundation has been laid, I tend to agree with Dr. Krashen that by insisting on our targets we may forget that essential element, the message. Our primary goal is to communicate a compelling message. A teacher who forgets the message because their lesson is focused on teaching vocabulary and grammatical structures is like a hostess who stacks so many chairs in the room that there is no space left for the guests. I don’t really think it is a question of targeting or non-targeting. If we are focused on the message, on a compelling message that we want to make comprehensible to our learners, we will easily identify a few essential words that our students might not be familiar with. We can then choose to use a synonym or we can decide to establish meaning and use light circling to favor acquisition of a useful new expression. There is no need for massive repetitions if the word is truly high frequency. Our students will naturally hear it again and again until it has been acquired. Brain science seems to indicate that it is more effective to hear a word repeated a few times at varying intervals than to hear it repeated seventy times on one single occasion. There is no need for acrimonious debates about whether or not to target, if we accept that each teacher knows her own students best and is best qualified to judge how much targeting would be helpful to them. I would add the humbling thought that when we target “+1”, some of our more autonomous students may have already acquired it and others may not be ready for it, so our targeted structure will not necessarily be acquired by all. Targeting may favor but does not guarantee acquisition.

I think Dr. Krashen’s distinction between T1 and T2 is important. It is the difference between “I want to teach x, where is a story I can use?” and trusting that x, if it is truly high frequency, will be there waiting for us when we find an interesting and compelling story for our students. When I decided to use entire films with my students, I supposed that the words they really needed would come up. To my surprise some of the expressions which came up frequently were not popular in the lower level grammar books. I realized that there were grammatical structures that were extremely high frequency which were introduced quite late in the third or fourth year grammar books. By deciding to let the film decide which structures to target, I learned that the typical textbook progression has it all wrong, something Dr. Krashen has been telling us for many years.

For the same reason Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki does not encourage targeting, yet there is nothing in the Story Listening method itself which would not allow a teacher to spotlight or target certain useful expressions. There is a lot of built-in repetition in folk tales which would make some circling to appear quite natural.

During the discussion on the moretprs list, some said that since Story Listening was not TPRS, there was no reason to be discussing it on the forum. From its creation the moretprs list has been a site where teachers interested in Comprehensible Input could exchange their experiences, ask for advice and give feedback on innovations that they had tried. This has allowed the TPRS community to develop and improve the method imagined by Blaine Ray and it continues to grow in effectiveness through these exchanges. Movie Talk is not TPRS either, but is used by many TPRS teachers and no one has ever suggested that it should not be discussed on the list serve. There are at least four methods, TPR, Movie Talk, TPRS and Story Listening, that were inspired by Dr. Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis. They share the common goal of immersing students in CI in order to permit acquisition. The three steps of TPRS, as defined by Blaine Ray, are establishing meaning, creating a story and reading. The same steps are present in Story Listening, the difference being that the students are not asked to participate in the creation of the story. Instead the teacher presents a story either written by a talented professional or passed on by generations of story tellers, which is kind of a guaranteed home run story. In Movie Talk the teacher describes and discusses a video that she shows to the students. In Story Listening she creates the video in their minds without the help of an animated image. A TPRS teacher may very well choose to use either Movie Talk, TPR or Story Listening from time to time, for variety if for no other reason. Does that mean that she is no longer a TPRS teacher? Of course not.

Personally, I use Blaine Ray’s story-asking method only occasionally, because of the type of students I work with. Most of them are adults and quite a few are retired. None of them are true beginners. They all find English language films compelling, so I work to make them comprehensible. If I succeed my students will become autonomous learners. I use Movie Talk, Very Narrow Listening and reading subtitles in English to achieve my goals. I see Story Listening as a helpful addition to my arsenal, allowing me to introduce a scene before I show it to my students. I can also use it with weaker students who are not yet ready to attempt a film in the original version. I am grateful to Beniko Mason Nanki for presenting teachers around the world with an elegant and easy to use strategy that allows us to immerse our students in compelling comprehensible input. Thank you, gracious lady. Whether or not we want to use Story Listening every day is up to each teacher to decide for herself.

*Mason, B., Vanata, M., Jander, K., Borsch, R., & Krashen, S. (2009) The effects and efficiency of hearing stories on vocabulary acquisition by students of German as a second foreign language in Japan. Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching, 5(1) 1-14

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