Water Runs Downhill

In The Power of Reading, Insights From The Research, Stephen Krashen mentions the importance of flow in reading (p. 29). Why shouldn’t this same concept be a key part of our focus as we learn to get better and better at delivering listening input to our students in the form of PQA and stories?

Water runs down mountains and not up them. In the same way, simplicity and flow must reign in any part of a TPRS/CI class. The water must flow downhill in a natural way. Things must emerge naturally. Language must emerge naturally. The student must be unaware that she is learning.

For that to happen, I must be relaxed. I must not try to control the story too much. I must not get nervous about the process. This requires trust in the questionning process. We have talked about trust here so much already in this past year especially.

What is trust? It is believing that what we do works. We must learn to pause and go slowly and then that lets things emerge organically. We learn to let our questions produce new information that, because it is remarkable and about the people in the room, isn’t ignored, but drives things forward.

This brings full participation by the students in the class, who are thrilled that their cute suggestions infuse the class with interest. The script becomes what it is supposed to be, the banks of the river and not the water in the river as the water that is comprehensible input goes down the mountain effortlessly.

Letting the water flow downhill. Teachers try to push the water uphill in their grammar classes. It is the same way in classes that use computer technology. Trying to push water uphill is not just boring, it is impossible, no matter how many Rosetta Stone bells and whistles are used – the student rejects it because the lesson is not comprehensible and not about her.

Water flows downhill. Each time we say something in the TL and a student understands what we say,  it is like adding a drop of water down the side of the mountain. Those drops, when joined together, begin imperceptibly to form rivulets and eventually rivers. The kids begin to understand large chunks of what we say because of so much input.

After thousands and thousands of hours of comprehensible input in the form of listening and reading, after thousands of little rivulets have been formed, rivers of knowledge form and the language thus built in the mind of the student reaches the sea of fluency. The process is effortless and astonishing.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it this way:

…if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea….

Other articles on this key topic that can be found on this site are FLOW (November 21, 2009), On Uninterrupted Flow (April 13, 2009), Teaching in a Natural Way (August 21, 2008), and Just Go With The Flow, (May 13, 2008).

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9 thoughts on “Water Runs Downhill”

  1. Were we talking about beginning the year with teaching the kids to play the game? When they don’t get it, the pressure is on, the sweat flows and the story goes nowhere. I will see Susie in Thursday in Vineland!

  2. I had a class last year that seemed to have hard time playing the game. Specifically, they seemed unenthused which was my worst nightmare. How could a class of mine not be enthused about learning Spanish? Things improved when I took the pressure off by thinking that my job was to teach Spanish not entertain teenagers. Ironically when I stopped worrying about this classes’ lack of enthusiasm and instead started “going with the flow” the enthusiasm level improved.

    Last year I also noticed that a great story or discussion would emerge after a moment of feeling that the story was going nowhere. It’s like asking a question and waiting a full 5 seconds for an answer to emerge. Those 5 minutes can be brutal, but what results can be great. Of course there are times where the story goes nowhere. In that case I would revert to my backup story or just go with the flow and wait for clever answers. I love Ben’s analogy of TPRS to jazz improv. This is what makes TPRS such a great approach. The unpredicability of TPRS keeps me from ever becoming bored.

  3. Hey Ben! Great post and most fantastic quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I am pondering it, may comment more later, but I can’t find out where it comes from. Is it from a book he wrote or just something he said? If you say it’s from Le Petit Prince, I’m going to be very embarrassed….

  4. I think the quote is from “Citadelle”, his unfinished manuscript. My college French teacher told me to translate if for my major ???? Can’t remember the word, but the big paper you had to hand in during your last semester. He only chose it because there was no English translation available then. I wouldn’t dare look back at it, it must have been horrible. But I remember that quotation. I think Saint-Euxpéry used it in other works too.

    Ben’s post is remarkable. I keep printing things off to post them on my wall, but it seems like I’m going to have Ben Slavic wallpaper all over.

    1. Thanks for the reference! I know what you mean about “Ben Slavic wallpaper.” And this post is exceptional, both in terms of how we can teach better, but also how our admin should be motivating teachers–not in data collection, but in the drive to see our students achieve, we will be driven to do the daily details.

      I really see this Saint-Exupéry quote as epitomizing “teach for June.” Help kids see where they can end up in terms of language acquisition, and that will engage them in the daily process of getting there. When I finally get my printer to work, this one is definitely joining the “Ben Slavic wallpaper” collection.

      1. …we will be driven to do the daily details…

        This is where trust comes in. It is a remarkably subtle point. It goes back to trust again. They lack trust in us, and trust only themselves to make things work, not familiarizing themselves with current f.l. pedagogy and doubting us. Not a good thing when, as you say, they should be helping us find ways to keep positive in the dark quagmires that schools have become.

  5. No not from le Petit Prince. I grabbed it somewhere and can’t remember where and stuck it in my files. It’s like some of those sentences from LPP that you can’t get out of your mind. So I don’t know.

  6. I want to echo what a helpful and inspiring post this is. On the trust thing . . . what I find myself running up against, year after year, is that while I have found my way of creating (and let’s be honest–earning) the trust of most of the kids I teach each year, there are always a few who a) have had such a run of teachers in their lives that “teacher” and “enemy” are core synonyms for them and/or b) whose life experience has so far been so awful that trust is not in their viscera anywhere. I can get through to the first group more quickly than the last group, but this image of what we do as water flowing down, running down, always moving down in and over and through every single activity, every single day–even that second group eventually catches a little drop or two of what might become for them their first experience of trust.

    Imagine! Imagine the human being who first learned trust in your classroom! Man, there’s just nothing else better. Teach for June (I get it). Teach for trust!

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