Do we learn to speak by speaking?

One of the mantras of Comprehensible-Input Based teaching is “we learn to speak by listening”. With three children who have learned Portuguese by listening to their Brazilian mother, I’d say that’s actually a slight oversimplification (I’ll explain in another post, maybe…), but it’s one that leads to much better teaching and learning than the idea that we learn to speak by speaking.

Here’s a testament to that idea’s effectiveness that I was lucky to have found in a blog by a Russian teacher named “M.J”., whose site is linked here:

I want to add a little tiny piece of “Hurrah for TPRS” news from the other day. I was going to post this separately, but felt like I was bragging or something, and I’m not: I’m just saying that TPRS wins out in the end.

As many of you know, we just had a statewide Russian contest of oral speaking. I was particularly worried about one of our judges, because she was someone who had attended a TPRS class that I was in charge of and had openly shared her disdain for TPRS, both in the class and in a hour-long rebuke session in the parking lot one day several years ago. I have carried the scars of that conversation for some time, and have assumed that she would never have any respect for me. On top of that, this has been a rough year, so I haven’t taught as well as I could, and don’t even remember the last oral presentation the kids had to do. I was not confident about what they would demonstrate.

I respect this person as one of the most talented teachers I’ve ever watched. I get to talk with her students from time to time, and they always blow me away (one was in my room yesterday, wanting to use the computer; he told me that he knew his mother’s login and password on the system, and even though that turned out not to be true, the fact that a pint-sized American boy could respond to me with no hesitation in Russian blew me away again…he’s a former student, but I’m betting a lot of that comes from her). If you could be in her presence, you would agree that any student within fifty feet of her would gain just by being there. She’s awesome. My respect for her made the negative feedback all the harder to bear.

Anyway, at the competition yesterday, she was positively beaming. She told our curriculum coordinator how impressed she was, and she told me too. Granted, she was judging the upper levels, so she got to hear my very best students who have been with me for several years, but she still asked the question: “How do you get your students to be so good at Russian and to be so comfortable talking?”

I did not remind her that TPRS is my method. I thanked her instead of trying to answer, singing inside. I almost never make them do oral presentations. It’s a real weakness with me. I do talk with them. I ask them about their lives and their loves. We build stories and virtual realities together. I show them movie clips. We read. We sing. We laugh. We tease one another. We do CI as much as possible. I steal from Laurie, from Bryce, from Martina, from Kristy, from Betsy, Victoria, and Cara and more. On the other hand, we sometimes crawl in boring depths for days and days as I try to manage four years’ worth of kids with highly different levels of motivation in one room. And then…once in a while they pull it all together. I don’t know how. Thank you Blaine and Ashley and gurus and CI friends everywhere. Because of you, magic happens.

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