Teaching for Foreign Language Fluency
The Keys to Fluency in a Language Classroom
1. A language class must be comprehensible.
2. Students must receive sufficient aural comprehensible input of basic structures and vocabulary to be able to truly acquire them. This enables students to use them orally to say what they want to say in their new language. This is the golden key to fluency.
3. The aural input must continually maintain the interest of students.
4. There must be at least one vehicle for developing fluent oral expression — a way for students to express themselves orally in their own words, not memorized lines. This must include a way for them to develop an often ignored aspect of fluency — connected speech in which they say one sentence after another.
5. The class must be conducted almost completely in the target language.
6. The process must involve relatively little stress. Preferably, it should be easy and enjoyable and/or interesting.
7. Teacher expectations must be high.
The TPRS® Classroom Fluency Model
The TPRS® model for fluency consists of four main elements:
1. Making the class 100% comprehensible.
2. Frequent aural repetition of the targeted material in the development of stories.
3. Keeping the class interesting.
4. Oral interaction about students themselves, topics of interest to them and stories that they hear and that they read.
TPRS® classes target limited vocabulary in early stages, focusing on the most common words in the target language, many of which are function words — such as pronouns, conjunctions and the most common prepositions — which are some of the words necessary for the acquisition of the most common grammatical features. We do not limit grammatical features very much, mainly taking care not to deal with longer, more complex structures until later. In the first week of teaching a language we often use the past tense and some more advanced features, like noun-verb agreement and adjective-noun order and agreement.
Our classes ease students into the lesson by starting with simple tenses. For example, past tenses are one of our first lessons because it indicates a variety of situations, like an event or a state of mind that has occurred in the past, or an action that has already been completed. From there, we introduce students to more complex tenses, like past continuous and the past perfect tenses. Students have a lot to learn, but we do not confine them to just one grammatical feature at a time. If you check out our online Spanish, French, Chinese, and other language books for teachers, these also combine basic tenses and advanced structures.
Some grammatical features are better acquired when they are provided in contrast to other features. This is the case with the past tense. If it is delayed until the present tense is rather well acquired, the present tends to become ingrained and seems to get in the way of the acquisition of the past. Overcoming this obstruction then requires much more time than simultaneous frequent comprehensible input of both tenses. (Still, one tense may indeed be acquired a bit earlier than the other in the natural order of acquisition.) If we resort to conscious learning instead of acquisition through comprehensible in- put, the learning is likely to be short-term and the acquirer is less likely to produce the correct tense without consciously choosing. This would slow the development of fluency. It is the repetition of the basic grammatical features of the language that causes students to acquire them and to develop fluency from early on.
Carefully limiting the vocabulary, frequent repetition of it, and quick translation (when needed) are the principal ways we use to keep a class totally comprehensible. In order to provide sufficient repetition of targeted grammatical features while simultaneously maintaining interest, we have all students respond appropriately to varying and repetitive questions about a developing story. We are ever vigilant as to how quickly students are processing what we are saying. When they are not understanding, we slow down our oral delivery and/or we clarify, usually by translating quickly; and then we move on. Keeping everything comprehensible is most essential, since students who are not following what the teacher is saying cannot be interested (they are likely to be confused or lost), nor can they acquire language that they don’t understand.
TPRS® classes use a variety of other devices to keep the class interesting, among them humor, material about the students themselves, input from students (especially creative input), dramatization of stories with student actors, and story lines that involve problems to be solved. We are always alert to the level of student interest, always ready to shift gears when interest wanes or appears it might.
TPRS® classes interact with students orally about their own lives and topics of interest to them, and we read and discuss stories and how they relate to our students’ own lives. Our goals are realistic. We don’t expect students to be able to speak and write their new language fluently and flawlessly as a result only of learning in a classroom. A realistic goal is for students to be able to produce the language confidently with some errors. Of course, the degree of perfection varies from student to student. In many approaches to language teaching, the goal is for students to produce with confidence and no errors. Many teachers find that they actually come much closer to this goal and fluency with TPRS® than with any other way of teaching. Their students can speak with considerable confidence and can understand the spoken word better than students they had taught before they taught with TPRS®.
TPRS® is used to teach fluency in the classroom and fluency matters. One important goal is for teachers to use the class time in the most effective way possible. We believe that the best way to do this is to consistently provide repetitive, interesting comprehensible input.