In the fall of 2006 I attended Iowa’s annual world language teacher’s convention in Dubuque, Iowa. At the convention Jan Holter-Kittok (personal communication, October 7, 2006) taught enough Swedish in the session to a group of twenty language teachers from a variety of teaching positions that the attendees were able to read a one-page version of the story The Wizard of Oz in Swedish by the end of the 45-minute session. That session motivated me to learn more about the method (which I later learned was named TPRS - Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) that accomplished so much language learning in such a short amount of time.
As a citizen in the melting pot of the United States, I realize how very important it is for students to acquire the ability to converse with and comprehend people who speak Spanish. According to Schmitt and Woodford, Spanish is the heritage language of forty million people in the United States and 350 million people in the world (Schmitt & Woodford, 2005, p. xxi). At parent teacher conferences many parents have expressed the desire for their children to be able to speak Spanish in the communities where they live or will live in the future. Many parents described the situations in their workplaces - hospitals, factories, banks, and farms - and told of the need to have Spanish-speaking people on staff. One mother pleaded for me to give her an Internet translation site because of difficulties communicating with the Hispanic family hired to work on their farm. The need for students to be able to communicate in Spanish and comprehend Spanish is imperative in today’s global society.
The problem with teaching a foreign language in many high school classrooms today is that the language acquisition that takes place in the classroom is seldom retained for any length of time. As a language teacher, I frequently ask students who have been graduated from Beckman High School’s Spanish program how they feel about their language abilities in the years following high school. Students complained that although they had studied the language for four years, they were able to speak the language slightly or not at all. Comprehending the language and retention was being blocked totally or stored in short term memory only, and little, if any, language was retained despite years of study. Many who study languages repeatedly say, “Use it or lose it,” as a mantra to excuse lack of fluency in a language learning situation. After my 45-minute session in the fall world language conference, I knew the mantra was no longer a valid excuse. I knew I wanted better for my students; I wanted them to be fluent and be able to retain the language they acquired no matter if they studied two years, four years, or longer.
The TPRS, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, method involves using body movements and gestures to begin instruction in the target, second language. After students have mastered basic movements and commands, the next step is to begin telling stories, asking students questions about information in the stories as it is being told to ensure comprehension is occurring, and then including the students and the information from their lives to personalize the stories and create ownership with the stories created. The techniques involved in TPRS include using ridiculous settings, crazy characters, and input from students that change the story from one class to another, yet involves the students actively in the story’s outcome. Whenever teachers ask questions about the stories, they use a technique called circling. In the circling technique, questions are asked over the same information, but with various responses required. For example, the teacher might ask if the character in the story is a girl or a boy, followed by a question on whether the character is a girl, followed by what the character is not (boy or girl), and the fourth question may finally ask who the main character in the story is. The teacher would add another detail and use circling questions again to make sure the students comprehend the meaning of the new detail. Teachers often use informal assessment by having students hold up anywhere from ten to zero fingers depending on if they comprehend all of the story (ten fingers), or any number down to zero fingers (telling the teacher this student did not comprehend any of what was taught in the story). Teachers do not continue a story until at least 80% of the students understand at least 80% of the story. Blaine Ray, author of the TPRS methods and many textbooks, states, “Making the class 100% comprehensible is the key for TPRS success. You are ‘in bounds’ when the slowest student understands. You are ‘out of bounds’ when any student doesn’t understand” (Ray, p. i).
Students are sometimes called upon to act out short stories or parts of stories in the TPRS method. Props such as large and small stuffed animals, flags in varying sizes, and clothing items, such as Mexican sombreros, are some of the variety of things used to create interest, spur motivation, and get students actively involved in the language. All of these are important ingredients for TPRS. Once students have heard the story orally, the next day’s class presents a mini story based on the same vocabulary in the previous day’s oral story. Again, the story is read aloud, questions are asked about the information presented in the stories, and students are given the opportunity to add to the written story or create a new story based on the vocabulary being presented. After several days of the sequence of oral-written-oral-written stories, the students receive a longer story to informally assess vocabulary being learned as well as reinforce the comprehension and retention of the lessons learned. Tests are usually given when a minimum of 80% of the students understand all of the material in the stories.
The traditional, grammar-based method usually includes some type of vocabulary drill and practice, followed by a formal assessment such as a quiz or test. The grammar taught is also delivered in a teach-practice-drill sequence. Culture readings provide the opportunity to learn about the lives and lands being studied. After culture readings are finished, students work on answering questions to assess the amount of comprehension that occurred during the course or the unit studied. The final component of a traditional, grammar-based methodology is a test, which covers the vocabulary, grammar, and culture taught in the unit.
Review of Relevant Literature
Given the goals of fluency and retention mentioned above, I asked myself which method of foreign language instruction will help the students attain those goals? Krashen (1997) says, “Current language acquisition theory claims that we acquire language in only one way, when we understand messages, that is, when we obtain ‘comprehensible input’ ” (Krashen, p. 3). The traditional method of textbook-driven, grammar-based instruction is not helping students to retain the language they attempted to acquire in high school, as reported by adults from various occupations. Krashen explains the faults he found with the textbook grammar-based method by stating, “the system of grammar, vocabulary, etc. that needs to be acquired is too complex to be learned consciously” (Krashen, p. 7). He wonders at the number of people who never had language instruction and yet develop high levels of proficiency. He notes that gains from grammar-based methods are usually short-term and last only until the students need to recall the information or vocabulary for a test (Krashen, p. 7). Murphy and Hastings collaborate Krashen’s findings saying, “It is common knowledge that every normal person above the age of six or so has acquired the grammar of his native language without explicit instruction and uses it without conscious attention. It is also common knowledge that normal people find it extremely difficult to understand or learn technical information about the grammar of any language, whether their own or any other. Nevertheless, many common approaches to teaching a second or foreign language continue to assume that explicit grammar teaching is necessary and effective” (Murphy & Hastings, p. 9). Faced with reports of insufficient vocabulary retention and of an inability to carry on conversational speech in the secondary language, I sought methods to correct these deficiencies. Teachers of second languages (L2) debate about which methods best develop conversational fluency.
When comparing comprehensible input-based language methods such as TPRS, with traditional, grammar-based methods, Krashen used research by J. Asher (as cited in Krashen, 1997) to report that “students in comprehensible input-based classes typically outperform traditional students on all measures involving communication (reading comprehension, conversation), and do as well, or slightly better, on form-based tests” (Krashen, 1997, p. 16).
Wang and Lee (2007) suggest, “The goal of second language education is to create autonomous language acquirers, students who can continue to improve in the second language after the course ends” (Wang & Lee, p. 30). Patton Tabors suggests that students wanting to learn a second language must want to communicate with people who speak that language as a crucial prerequisite to acquiring a second language. In order for us to help students acquire a second language, teachers must provide opportunities for them to want to learn the second language. Not only must the students want to learn the second language, they must want to keep on learning the second language long after the semester or course has ended. “Children who are in a second-language-learning situation have to be sufficiently motivated to start learning a new language” (Tabors, p. 81). Krashen states, “If we bring students to the stage where they will be able to improve on their own, and have the knowledge of how to improve more, their accuracy and fluency will continue to increase” (Krashen, p. 20).
In addition to fostering a desire to learn a second language and motivating a student to continue learning on his/her own, language teachers should remember that students learn best when the instruction is coupled with body movements. Eric Jensen notes, “the relationship between movement and learning is so strong that it pervades all of life” (Jensen, p. 65). Jensen discusses at length the brain-based research that connects learning with movement. Teaching methods that couple language to movements, therefore, are more effective methods as far as brain-based research is concerned. TPRS methods are highly effective because of the use of movement to aid in language acquisition.
Students who studied Spanish using TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) methods for one semester achieved higher scores indicating higher levels of comprehension of Spanish than students who were taught by traditional, grammar-based methods.
The independent, categorical variable in this study was the teaching method used to develop Spanish language acquisition - the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) method or the traditional, grammar-based method of instruction. The dependent, measured variable was the set of scores in comprehension that the students achieved on the pre- and posttests.
Beckman High School is a private, Catholic high school located north of Highway 20 in Dyersville, Iowa, at the western end of Dubuque County. Beckman was established in 1966 and is accredited by the Archdiocese of Dubuque as well as the Iowa Department of Education. Beckman currently consists of a junior and senior high school. During the 2008-2009 school year, Beckman had 361 students enrolled in grades 9-12 and 136 students enrolled in grades 7-8.
Spanish I students in grades 9 through 12 were the focus of this study. In the booklet describing Beckman’s course offerings, the philosophy underlying the World Language Department stresses the department’s commitment to developing an appreciation of world culture through learning and understanding the life and language of others. Emphasis is placed on developing skills in reading, writing, and oral communication in a foreign language, Spanish. Spanish is the only language offered at Beckman. Spanish is an elective course highly touted by the guidance counselor and strongly recommended for any student who will attend college. The entrance recommendations listed in the course offerings booklet serve as a guide to help students decide if the course would be of benefit to each individual student. Good memorization skills, the ability to understand English grammar, and the motivation to succeed are the entrance recommendations students consider before signing up for Spanish as an elective. Each school day at Beckman is divided into eight periods; each period lasts forty-eight minutes. Beckman’s school year is divided into two semesters with two quarters per semester; each nine weeks constitutes a quarter. Grades recorded at the end of each semester are part of the student’s permanent record.
The sample of students used in this research study consisted of 72 students from Dubuque’s Wahlert Catholic High School and 98 students from Dyersville’s Beckman High School. Further data of the make up of the students may be found in Appendix B.
The 98 Beckman students were enrolled in four sections of Spanish I for the 2008-2009 academic year. The four sections contained 88% freshmen, 8% sophomores, 2% juniors, and 2% seniors. The sophomores were all students who did not choose to take Spanish I during their freshmen year. The junior students were two female students who had little success in Spanish I during their freshmen year in the traditional, grammar-based method who enrolled in the 2008-2009 year because of positive reports on the TPRS method from students in the 2007-2008 school year who had repeated Spanish I. The two senior students were exchange students from Germany who wanted to add Spanish as the sixth language they have studied. The students are 99% Caucasian and 1% Asian, and of the 98 students enrolled, 9% required remedial help in the resource room. I am one of two Spanish teachers in the building, so students do not leave the classroom for testing since neither resource person understands Spanish.
This research study used causal-comparative research design. The experiment used determined that using the TPRS method of secondary language instruction resulted in higher achievement in comprehension compared to the use of the traditional, grammar-based method of instruction. The research utilized only random assignment and did not use random selection of participants since the groups assigned to a particular method is determined by the class section or school where they are registered. Random assignment was not utilized in this study. The research started with groups already determined.
Methods of Data Collection
The pre-test and posttest each included the same written test. I designed the test myself. The sample consisted of students currently taking Spanish I. I used a stratified sample including all ability levels of both genders from three sections of Spanish I taught by two different teachers using the traditional, grammar-based method of Spanish instruction and another group from four sections of Spanish I being taught by me using the TPRS method of instruction. The sample came from two different schools within the same county; the traditional, grammar-based sample came from students at Wahlert, a Catholic high school in the city of Dubuque, Iowa, and the TPRS sample came from students at Beckman, a Catholic high school in Dyersville, Iowa.
The test (see Appendix A) consisted of reading a portion of a Spanish novel named Patricia Va a California with basic vocabulary taught during a typical course of first semester Spanish. I did not anticipate many students doing well on the pre-test since most had not learned much of the necessary vocabulary at that point in the semester.
For the test, I used raw scores on the tests to measure achievement. I first added all of the number of right answers and compared them to the total number of answers the students actually attempted. The second set of scores on each report indicates the total number of right answers compared to the entire twenty questions on the test. In this way, I could see if the two methods were different due to their accuracy (total number of right answers to those questions answered, then converted to a percentage) or if they were different because the students could truly comprehend more on each test (total number of right answers compared to the entire twenty questions, then converted to a percentage). For example, looking at the posttest scores for first hour at Beckman (p. 25 of Appendix B), 226 right answers were made by 19 students. The 19 students attempted to answer 290 of the questions in the class. Taking 226, dividing by 290, and multiplying by 100 yielded a score of 77.93%. I did not round up any of the percentages on any of the reports. The students were very accurate in answering the questions they attempted and nearly achieved the 80% level required by TPRS methods as a baseline for measuring comprehension. I then took the 226 right answers and compared them to the total number possible to answer, 380 (19 students multiplied by 20 questions on the test). Taking 226, dividing by 380, and multiplying by 100 yielded a score of 59.47%. While not as high as the accuracy score, this score indicates that students could comprehend almost 60% of a test over a basic novel with four weeks remaining in the first semester of the school year. These students, while being the lowest of all four TPRS-taught sections, can comprehend more than students learning Spanish in the traditional, grammar-based method since the highest score on a posttest was 47.70% from the 6th hour class (see p. 21 of Appendix B).
As outlined numerically in the test results section (Appendix B), the TPRS method of instruction achieved higher raw scores than the traditional, grammar-based method no matter which set of scores are used (see p. 32 of Appendix B, the test results summary page).
I collected information on gender, student responses on their own grade in Spanish and overall grade average, as well as the students’ own response to how long they have studied Spanish. The information gathered was not used for interpreting results, but to demonstrate the random assignment nature of those who took the test. As shown in the test results section of Appendix B, the students who took the test felt that they were above average students, had studied a variety of years in Spanish, and were members of both genders on a fairly representative basis.
For this study I administered the pre-test four weeks after the beginning of the fall semester and followed up with the same test administered as a posttest four weeks prior to the end of the fall semester.
Interpretation of Results
This study supported the hypothesis that students comprehend more vocabulary in Spanish by use of the TPRS methods of Spanish instruction versus the traditional, grammar-based methods. All scores for the TPRS method in the ending summary of results page show that students not only answered with a higher degree of accuracy (see % right of questions answered scores) but also were able to comprehend and finish more of the test than students in the traditional, grammar-based method (see % right of total number of questions asked scores).
Solution to Retention and Fluency Problems in Language Acquisition After looking at and interpreting the scores resulting from the pre-test and posttest, I will continue to use and promote TPRS methods as the preferred method for teaching a second language. The pre-test scores indicate that students using TPRS comprehended Spanish at a faster pace since they scored slightly higher overall on the questions answered and definitively higher when considering scores for the entire twenty-question test. The posttest scores indicate that impressive gains were made by both groups, but the TPRS students still outpaced the traditional, grammar-based method students as far as the amount each group can comprehend.
One internal threat to validity was the instrumentation. Since I designed the test being used, I attempted to ensure that it was reliable from an internally consistent point of view. I controlled for this by using the split-half reliability measure, and I applied the Spearman-Brown formula to see how high the resulting estimate was. The higher the number (over .90) (Gay et al., p. 143) means it is an internally reliable test. The application of the Spearman-Brown formula resulted in a score of .935, indicating that the test could be considered having internal consistency reliability.
Another possible threat to the internal validity of this study was the testing itself. I wondered whether giving the same pre-test and posttest would improve the participants’ scores on the posttest (since the same tests was used both times) by tipping the students off in advance. I attempted to control for this threat to validity by testing at least two months apart between the pre-test and the posttest. Many students at both schools commented about not remembering the tests or directions for taking it the second time. I did feel that testing two months apart solved the problem of this particular threat to validity.
One external threat to validity that I already addressed by defining the sample as I have above was selection-treatment interaction. I worried that selecting only students in one ability level would skew the results and not allow them to be generalized to other populations of students. By selecting both genders and including approximately the same ratio of each ability level I avoided this external threat to validity.
The other threat to validity that I discussed with the person named Teacher #1 in this study is the fact that I tested using the methods the TPRS students are already familiar with even though they had not seen or read any of the materials used prior to either test. I asked Teacher #1 if the students in the traditional, grammar-based method were used to answering comprehension questions, and Teacher #1 replied affirmatively, but the fact remains that students in grammar-based methods do not practice questioning techniques to the extent that TPRS students practice answering questions. The practice of answering questions is crucial to language acquisition in any language and reflects an ability to comprehend that language, yet is it too great of a limitation to test for comprehension using a technique one group is more familiar with and state results based on that technique? I am not sure how to encourage others to differentiate the test such that it favors neither method. I did not resolve this dilemma during the course of this research.
As stated earlier, I believe that an ability to comprehend and answer questions is a reflection of language acquisition so I will continue to use the method that promotes learning and practicing those skills with students. The method that encourages fluency and comprehension of language people can readily use is the TPRS method. I will promote the use of TPRS methods to my fellow Spanish teacher in our two-person department at Beckman, and I will share the results of this research with the teachers at Wahlert. Neither teacher will be surprised, though one already lamented to me the dismay he/she felt because the teacher’s students are not able to comprehend much of what is done in his/her Spanish class.
I will report these findings to Blaine Ray; he will be interested by the attempt made after such a short time in one semester to prove the difference between the two methods. He may choose to share the findings with those who regularly attend his conferences, though I am sure he will recognize the dilemma I faced with testing using the TPRS style of questioning.
Meaning of the Results for the Spanish I Course
After interpreting the results of this test, I decided that the program we will follow for instruction at Beckman High School will continue to be TPRS for at least Spanish I and II. I will relay the results of my findings to the administration and the school board so that they will know that the decisions made in the world language department are made based on data collected, not just on the “gut” feelings of the teachers in the department.
The goal for any language program needs to be helping students to comprehend and retain the language being taught. The TPRS method of instruction helps students meet that goal.
Gay, L. R., Mills, G. E., & Airasian, P. (2006). Educational research: Competencies for analysis and applications (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Krashen, S. D. (1997). Foreign language education the easy way. Culver City, CA:
Language Education Associates.
Murphy, B. & Hastings, A. (Fall 2006). The utter hopelessness of explicit grammar teaching. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching,2(2), 9-11.
Ray, B. (2006). Mini-stories for look, I can talk! Pismo Beach, CA: Blaine Ray Workshops, Inc.
Schmitt, C. J., & Woodford, P. E. (2005). ¡Buen viaje! (2nd ed.). New York:
Tabors, P. O. (1997). One child, two languages: A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Wang, F.-Y., & Lee, S.-Y. (Fall 2007). Storytelling is the bridge [Electronic version]. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 3(2), 30-35.
Capítulo 4, p. 12-13 Patricia Va a California Book # _______________________
You may only use the novel to look up vocabulary. No dictionaries, notes, or daily planners are allowed. Please do NOT write in the text. This is a timed test. You will have 15 minutes to answer the questions on this page. Questions do NOT have to be in complete Spanish sentences, but the answers do have to be in Spanish. Hand in this page when the moderator says to stop at the end of the 15 minutes. If you finish early, you may go back and change answers on this test. Thank you for your effort. Please wait for the moderator to start the testing time.
(This page and its backside were left blank from this point when copied and given to the students. The questions and survey were on page two of the pre-test and posttest.)
1. ¿Cuál es la fecha? ___________________________________________________________
2. ¿Quiénes se suben a un autobús? _______________________________________________