Mark Knowles on WL Education

Sometimes I publish comments as articles. I do so because I think that sometimes we miss comments that are important. So this comment-turned-article is from Mark Knowles, Director of the Anderson Language and Technology Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We have been working with Mark over recent years and will be working with him even more this year, so if you want to read more just click on the Mark Knowles category on the right side of this page. Why is this important? Because besides Dr. Robert Patrick in Atlanta, who teaches both in Gwinnett County Schools and also at the University of Georgia, as well as Birsen Tutunis at Istanbul Aydin Üniversitesi and only a handful of others (we need a list), we have precious few scholars worldwide who embrace what we do. In his comments, Mark addresses this and other topics:

Hi Ben and company!

Thank you very much for all the undeserved attention and compliments! Let me write that article first before we get too carried away! Ben is correct that in the coming months, I would be humbled if I were able to hear from you about your own “coming-to-CI” stories. I might start out by saying that I grew into teaching in the 198o’s when the Natural Approach was creating quite the stir. At the time, I felt there was a different ACTFL than the one we have today, and it seemed to me that it was fully concerned with this thing called fossilization (ever hear about that?) and appropriate correction techniques of student output. My grad program at Illinois felt like it was at the vortex of an epic battle between the major advocates of inductive versus deductive learning, or use versus usage. As you might guess, the conventional teaching favored deductive learning and usage, and if you spoke up in favor of things like Sandra Savignon’s version of the Communicative Approach or Terrell and Krashen’s Natural Approach, you could easily be labeled as an anything-goes, hippie teacher. Remember this was at the height of the Culture Wars in education led by none other than (my favorite vice-president ever) Dick Cheney’s significant other Lynne, so it could be a real career-killer to find yourself on the wrong side of that issue when going in for a job interview. I’m actually not sure those Culture Wars have really subsided. The standardized testing movement got its big liftoff back then, and, rather than slowing or falling down, they seem to be racing to the top at breakneck speed, thanks to another idol of mine, Arne Duncan.

So here’s a form of disclosure about me and this is important. For those of you who don’t know me, I am not one to mince words and sometimes I express my opinions (which I also attempt to back up with something called evidence rather than simply faith). Since I brought up the word idol here, my biggest hometown idol is a fellow by the name of James Hansen, to whom some have credited the invention of the term “global warming.” Hansen is a NASA scientist and Columbia University professor who has been arrested more than once protesting coal-fired electrical plants because, as a grandfather, he wants his grandkids and great grandkids to inherit something other than a burned out slag heap for a planet. He is a scientist, but he is not one who embraces some image of a cool and detached white-coated technician who professes some kind of professional purity during the time that the thing which nurtures and sustains him and the rest of us wastes away before his very eyes. He speaks his mind – forcefully. Admittedly, the realm of language learning or even the educational realm might not be quite as big a deal as global warming, but I’m actually not so sure about that. I refuse to comply with a system that wears down our kids’ spirits rather than builds them up, and one of the first things that caught my attention on the Ben Slavic blog was this theme of how TPRS and CI are the language approaches for the rest of us and not just for the 4%.

I had the good fortune of having Sandra Savignon as a member of my doctoral committee, and one of her greatest passions was to democratize language learning. If we contribute nothing other than second voices to that lifelong pursuit of hers, I think that our contributions will be more than satisfactory. A big theme of my research will therefore center around whether CI and TPRS connect to the Minority Majority world we are moving into. I know I’ve heard a lot along those lines from Diana Noonan and from Ben and Joseph Dziedzic, and I’ve also heard it from Sabrina Janczak’s adult learners at CU-Boulder. I had a very nice chat with John Piazza at the iFLT along these same lines. I would love to hear what you guys think about this point. Do CI and TPRS speak to a greater range of the overall student population than conventional language learning approaches, and if so, how and why? Would you be willing to chat with me at length about these points, either anonymously or not, and would you be willing to give me permission to include your thoughts in my study? And, of course, I just want to learn about who you are and how you came into the CI/TPRS fold.



8 thoughts on “Mark Knowles on WL Education”

  1. Leigh Anne Munoz

    Hi, Mark! I am the knitting lady from California that sat next to you a bit in Linda Li’s Chinese class at iFLT last year in San Diego, the one who took up French just to be able to continue with TPRS.

    I have lots of students in Special Ed and other marginalized groups. I’d love to help in any way I can. 🙂

    You can email me at :

  2. Count me in as well Mark! I’ve been teaching with TPRS/CI for 15 years and have worked as a trainer/presenter/coach for 10. I have stories not only from my personal experience but from teachers I have worked with as well…many of them. Then again, you might have enough just from this group alone to keep you busy for a long, long time!!

    with love,

  3. I don’t know where to share this…but just yesterday I heard a fantastic story about a former student. My barometer student from 2 years ago. Her mom cuts my hair, and I was in yesterday hearing about everything M is doing. I had her for French 1 and 2. This year she was in French 3 and struggled mightily (eclectic teacher…lots of verb charts and such, output, games, etc) and I think almost failed. She left our school and went to the local public school for the rest of the year.

    Anyway, she has a summer job at this mountain biking / BMX park. She got the front dest job. They picked her because she is very organized, quick on the computer, and “speaks French!!!” Yes! There are lots of folks from Canada who go up there and she is able (and most importantly willing / confident enough) to communicate with them. I am so proud of her! I know that the teachers who had her this year see her as “incapable” on some level. BUT she can listen to and understand real live people, ask them to slow down or whatever, and engage in real life in French! I know for a fact that there are kids who were in her group who could spell everything correctly who would never dare to do what she is doing right now! So blessed to be doing this work 🙂

  4. Mark take note. Interview our jen. Thank you jen! You reached this child and the third year teacher did not. Shame on that teacher. I’ll say it again – Shame on that teacher, as per:

    …I know that the teachers who had her this year see her as “incapable” on some level….

    She is not incapable. The teacher is incapable.


  5. Mark, count me in also. I’ve been using TPRS/TCI for about 10 years but moved into it slowly during the first three to four years.

    I shared this with a couple of people at NTPRS but want to share it here as well. On Tuesday of the conference I got an e-mail from one of my students who graduated in June. Her experience in German class was not the best: she was unable to take German her sophomore year because of other requirements; when she returned to German 2, it was with my infamous fifth-period class. As a result, that year was decidedly less than the best that I could have given her. Nonetheless, she continued into German 3, one of only two people from that class to do so. She was, as you might well imagine, a little self-conscious in a class with level four and AP students, but she was my barometer for the class. Anyway, in her e-mail this student reported that she had gone to Germany this summer and stayed with a German friend’s family. The parents speak no English, but she was able to communicate effectively with them and was amazed that she was able to understand basically everything and “communicate efficiently” (her words). In addition, she is entering the University of California Davis and had to take a German placement test. Students who have take three years of high school German are expected to place into Davis’s German 3 class. My student happily reported that she placed an entire class level higher. Again, this was after an experience in my less-than-the best class.

    I also once had a Teacher’s Assistant (a student who simply needed an elective class for credits). He was in and out of the classroom running errands or sitting at a desk doing various projects and tasks. One day he was in the room for the full period working on a project that he finished just as we were ready to take the end-of-class quiz. On impulse, I asked him to take the quiz with the class. He aced it and was so proud that he asked to put it on the wall behind the desk where he usually worked. BTW, he had failed Spanish (and – I learned later – was considered a “discipline problem”, although I never had any trouble with him at all). His experience was just one of the ones that convinced me of the power of CI.

  6. Mark, I’d be happy to provide my experiences too. I’ve been teaching with TPRS/CI for 6 years in a very small rural school in SE Minnesota. Let me know if I can help. or

    I had a great time talking with Richard at NTPRS about my experiences and thoughts on teaching with TPRS. He is working on a thesis to define what TCI is, in the words of those doing it. I think that’s what it is anyways. It helps for me to try to articulate those beliefs I hold about how we teach…

  7. This is all fantastic, and I thank you all up front for your willingness to share your experiences and stories. Jen’s story reminds me of Margaret Mead’s observation that while in Samoa, Mead’s fellow anthropologists always knew how to conjugate their verbs correctly while she did not, but she was the one who always knew whose pig had died and whose child was ill. Savignon used that quote at the beginning of one the chapters of her 1982 book.

  8. Count me in, too. I have been teaching for 5 years (career changer), the last three of which with TPRS. This fall, I will be teaching a AP German for the first time. So, this will be an interesting experience/experiment since I am determined to continue with CI (these kids have only had one year of TPRS in 9th grade). So, if you still need help in any way, you can reach me at Brigitte dot Kahn at verizon dot net.
    Best of luck!

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