Story Listening Rant

Tina gives a heartfelt response to Terry’s morelist position on SL:

Terry you write:  después de que el idioma se haya ido de la mente del que escucha,

For this not able to read Spanish, this means “after the words that the learner heard have gone from the brain” i.e. saying that in SL the learner is not matching sound to meaning.

OF COURSE this will not lead to acquisition.  It would be like If I sat down to watch a Mandarin movie with all that language just whizzing by then at the end getting a card with the words on it, and thinking, “Did I hear that?”


What is happening with SL is “caretaker speech” which, as we all know, is slower, simpler, and involves frequent visual check-ins, use of gestures, visual aids, and L1/L2 writing.

They are understanding in the moment.  How do I know that?  Because they can retell later.  They are not acting all cray cray, as a class of 37 middle school kids will tend to do if they do not understand, if they are lost.  I know this because I had a student teacher.  On the days when she was not being comprehensible, the kids went cray cray.  The days I would take back over, and speak comprehensibly, magic!  no more cray.  Just listening and enjoyment.  Also, my kids can write now.  SO, they must be acquiring something.

I know you think, Terry, it is less efficient.  I know you will likely never change your mind on that.  For you, the efficiency you have experienced with TPRS, targeted words, circling those words to provide repetitions, checking for understanding frequently, that efficiency is so powerful that you promote TPRS as the best path to language acquisition.

That may be true.  We can dither all we want about what is and is not true.  I think there is even a whole branch of philosophy that deals in how do we know what we know is actually true.  We really can not know if circling or not circling is more efficient in the long run, as there have been no real side-by-side comparison studies.  However, in my little corner of the CI universe, where I am just in the classroom each day, teaching for proficiency through stories and reading, and working with other teachers here and there from time to time, in my little corner, I have found that using only NT communication such as SL has made my life easier, lots easier, this year, and here at the end of the year I can clearly see acquisition has happened for my students.

Do I have data?  Well, I have their last batch of assessments from late April.  But I do not have like some kind of scientific study.  Maybe one day I will.  Maybe someone will do the research.  But even those, I have found, people will poo-poo.  “Not enough test subjects” or “Not conducted over enough years” or “The comprehension hypothesis is untestable” (I have heard that one, yes).  People say all the time, Dr. Krashen is not a classroom teacher so he can’t truly know.  Yet any of his research subjects were in schools.  People also say that action research a teacher does is not a large enough sample size.  Sounds like a catch-22 to me.  So, even “data” will fail us.  And still we dither.  And as we dither, there are more and more teachers out there asking themselves, “What is this CI thing?” and the teaching world is slowly waking up to CI.  It is growing, people, the energy is picking up.  And yet we dither on and on.  Do we have to circle?  Don’t these curious new people need to circle like we were taught to?

The data that counts to me is are the students enjoying class, are they able to communicate in the language with more and more proficiency, are they able to understand as evidenced by non-invasive procedures such as end-of-class written L1 retells as Beniko does and Quick Quizzes as Ben does, and – maybe the most important of all – AM I HAPPY IN MY JOB SO THAT I DO NOT QUIT AND LEAVE THE POSITION OPEN FOR A GRAMMARIAN TO GET BACK IN HERE AND HARM – LITERALLY HARM – THE KIDS OF THE FUTURE.

I am in it for the long haul.  I am in it to help other teachers be in it for the long haul.  The long haul, well folks, it is LONG.  Happiness matters.  School’s hard enough.  If there is something easier, I say take it with both hands.

Now, we can dither around about who does TPRS and who doesn’t, what constitutes TPRS and what doesn’t, what steps need to be there and which don’t…but there are teachers out there who need to get through the year.  They need to make it till June.  They need to go home and have the feeling of a job well done.  They need to feel love from kids, b3cause they need to stay in the profession in these dark and quickly-getting-darker times.

So we can dither about, but while we dither, there are teachers who NEED to KNOW that YES they can just go in to class and tell them a simple story.  It really is that simple.  It really does work.  It might lose out on a little efficiency, but hey, life is not all about getting to the finish line first.  If that is your focus, get ready for some serious burnout.  I am all for anything that helps us sniff a rose or two on the way to the finish line.  And you know what, by sniffing those roses, we actually might finish faster and better because we will run with refreshed energy.

Even I, who is like a bouncy Energizer Bunny the likes of which I thought did not really exist until I met my match in Annabelle Allen, even I run out of juice with circling targeted structures day in and day out.  And yet I kept on keeping’ on year after year, because that is all I knew.  And then things got lighter for me.  They got easier.  And you know what, if my students acquire a smidgen less quickly, THAT IS FINE BY ME.  They still blow the PPS expectations out of the water.  They still zoomed up the ACTFL levels of proficiency.

They are still acquiring and I am able to relax a good deal more.  Sounds like a win win.

Because I have seen non-targeted work including Story listening succeed from the first months, I have to say that I disagree with the commonly-expressed belief that TPRS is the only way to give them a foundation in the language.  My parents never sat me down and circled with me as a baby.  But they did talk to me slowly and comprehensibly.

The old argument of “We just do not have the time in schools” is losing its bite.  I CARE NOT anymore.  Because I care more about our sanity, our longevity, our survival in the profession.  The world needs us, us CI teachers, us weirdos, us firebrands.  We are needed.  We need to cut ourselves some slack.  We need to take it just a little easier, in my opinion.

And yes Terry they DO understand in the moment.  I know they do.  I cannot see inside their heads to see that they got every word, nor do I care to.  But I know they are acquiring.  I make no pretense of being scientific about this.  Nor do I need to.  I am a teacher.  I am a proud and happy teacher.  I am happy to be here and I am proud to have survived.

Peace out.

This is just my opinion.

This is just my way of sharing myself and my experience with you.

I am just too excited not to.

You might not agree.

That is fine with me.

But I cannot sit by and let you say that they are not comprehending.  They are.

That is all.

Peace out again.




17 thoughts on “Story Listening Rant”

  1. Tina,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to Terry. You say a number of important things in this reply.

    I am reminded of a major controversy for the early church recorded in the New Testament: How much of a Jew do you have to become before you can become a Christian? Similarly, the current debate seems to be along the lines of “How much of a (traditional) TPRSer do you have to become before you can become a CI teacher?” Fortunately for the souls of multitudes, the early church decided that you don’t have to become Jewish in order to become Christian. I think the ultimate answer in the current debate will be similar.

    You give a very good response to the argument for the tyranny of the urgent. In schools we often hear admonitions about how little time we have with students – and not just in foreign language courses. This is part of the argument for “bell-to-bell instruction” that is commonly advocated and promulgated by administrators. Since we have so little time with students, every second must count. But count for what?

    Don’t get me wrong. I believe we need to make good use of our time with students. However, “good use of our time” is not necessarily keeping students “on task” every second of the time they are in our classrooms. We and students need those breaks, and sometimes the “brain break” needs to be release from the constraints of the target language completely. At the same time, since language is all about communication, and communication is relational, we need to make good use of our time by strengthening relationships.

    I wrote on my Facebook page about how I have ceased admonishing students about being late and started simply asking them, “Is everything okay?” Even knowing that I am not going to write them a tardy slip, students don’t come in any later or any more often than they ever have, and they get an indication that someone actually cares about them. I also check on students who have been absent the same way.

    There are, of course, two different responses (more than two, but I’m just concentrating on two) to the conundrum of language instruction. If it takes thousands of hours to reach proficiency, and we have only a couple hundred hours with students, then either
    1) we cram absolutely every bit of comprehensible language into those hours that we can,
    2) we create a desire in students to continue learning the language and equip them with the knowledge and resources to do so.
    As I near the end of my teaching career, I am more and more firmly in the camp of the latter. For one thing, it relieves a great deal of stress; I don’t have to fill every second of class time with targeted instruction at the expense of addressing student needs and interests and dealing with affective factors.

    In recent reading I have learned more about the Reticular Activating System and the Reticular Formation. Without going into any specifics, these two structures in the brain determine what a person becomes aware of by subconsciously (unconsciously) filtering the relevant from the irrelevant among the myriad stimuli with which we are constantly bombarded. If I have pre-planned targets for instruction, my students may not “pay attention” to my targets because they are perceived by the RAS as irrelevant. If, however, my targets emerge from student interest and participation, then students are much more likely to be consciously aware of the language because the subject is relevant to them. (Assuming, of course, that the language is comprehensible)

    Just a couple of thoughts on a well-written response.

    1. Not originally. I initially came across the term Reticular Activating System in the book “The Power of Consistency” by Weldon Long. Then I did some searching and research to find out more. It also fits well with what Stephen Camarata says in “The Intuitive Parent” about the way the brain works.

      Story Listening, as Tina explains it, seems very much like what Camarata calls “Dialogic Reading”, except it is primarily oral/aural in presentation with the visual portion in the form of drawings rather than text.

      1. Yes Robert and I think the problem is that dialogic reading is wanting the kids to speak a lot more than in SL where the kids only listen, as per this:

        Dialogic Reading: An Effective Way to Read to Preschoolers
        By: Grover J. (Russ) Whitehorse

        (This is an archived article so I can’t provide the url but this is a sample from it):

        What is dialogic reading?

        How we read to preschoolers is as important as how frequently we read to them. The Stony Brook Reading and Language Project has developed a method of reading to preschoolers that we call dialogic reading.

        When most adults share a book with a preschooler, they read and the child listens. In dialogic reading, the adult helps the child become the teller of the story. The adult becomes the listener, the questioner, the audience for the child. No one can learn to play the piano just by listening to someone else play. Likewise, no one can learn to read just by listening to someone else read. Children learn most from books when they are actively involved.

        The fundamental reading technique in dialogic reading is the PEER sequence. This is a short interaction between a child and the adult. The adult:

        Prompts the child to say something about the book,
        Evaluates the child’s response,
        Expands the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it, and
        Repeats the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion.
        Imagine that the parent and the child are looking at the page of a book that has a picture of a fire engine on it. The parent says, “What is this?” (the prompt) while pointing to the fire truck. The child says, truck, and the parent follows with “That’s right (the evaluation); it’s a red fire truck (the expansion); can you say fire truck?” (the repetition).

        1. The fly in the ointment and why Dialogic Reading won’t find a home in my instruction:

          …no one can learn to play the piano just by listening to someone else play….

          It’s true for the piano, not true for languages. The idea of “practicing” the piano is accurate for the piano. But the mind when learning a language need only listen without “practicing” for years and years in most cases. Then, just like the rose who came out from under the shelter of her green room only when she had had enough time doing her “toilette du matin” in Le Petit Prince, she appeared when she was ready. We make a grave mistake as language teachers when we ask kids to “practice” too early.

          1. Dialogic Reading as a systematized instructional methodology is different from what Camarata describes.

            For Camarata, Dialogic Reading is the parent sitting down with the child and reading interactively, the way that parents intuitively read to their children. No expectation of production is placed on the child.

            Camarata also speaks against all of those programs that are supposed to give a child a head start, such as “Baby Einstein”. (He mentions that one by name.) Camarata’s advice to parents is to interact with the child in three dimensions, and the child’s brain – barring actual physical impairment of some sort – will do everything necessary for the child to learn language. Children who are “behind” suffer from a lack of input, and doing specialized practice such as listening drills will not put a child ahead.

            It looks like this is one more instance of someone taking something that is natural and trying to monetize it by packaging it “in another form”. (Sort of like Big Pharma wanting to get people to stop using home remedies – e.g. willow bark tea for pain relief- and yet using the ingredients found in the natural remedy in their products – e.g. aspirin. Of course the argument for medicine is the necessity of standardizing dosage; that’s counterproductive for language acquisition, though.)

          2. Nice clarification. I esp. like this:

            …Camarata’s advice to parents is to interact with the child in three dimensions, and the child’s brain – barring actual physical impairment of some sort – will do everything necessary for the child to learn language….

            That’s right up my alley.

  2. This also seems like just another case of someone judging from without and not from within. Has Terry actually tried using Story Listening? Has she given it a chance in her own classroom? Has she done any training with it? It doesn’t sound like it… But, I could be wrong. It just sounds very dismissive to me.

  3. Well said Bryan. The number is great of those who have no experience in non-targeted work, and yet they judge. “Please God forgive me for judging their judgment of me” is a prayer that I should say more than once a day. Like a hundred times. Otherwise we have that kind of back and forth judgement thing going on and nothing ever happens for the kids. Tina and I spent the last year being judged and dismissed in some cases with venom. We are slowly absorbing the point you make above.

  4. People should be able to make their own decisions how they teach using CI. Some will choose targets, others will choose no targets. We are all individuals teaching artists and if our teaching doesn’t reflect our own personalities then it won’t be affective. The current mantra that the TPRS/CI community needs to adopt is “Live and let live.”

    1. I agree with all my heart: Live and let live.

      If what we do in the classroom, feels good for everyone and the language gains are there, I am sure everything is just fine!!!
      And I know that the vast majority of students dislikes thorough grammar instruction with worksheets and testing, Like one of my 7th-graders put it last week when we were spending a little time on the difference between adjective and adverb: “I’m not interested in rules and I don’t learn them, I go by sound and feel.”
      I feel compelled to do some minimalistic grammar teaching bc it can help them edit when writing but I’ve stopped using worksheets years ago.

      Just my thoughts.

  5. Dudes you need to get a Mandarin teacher on board to start experimenting w/SL and video-record her- or himself doing it – with beginners -…and share and comment…take the hypothetical to the real…

  6. I will start video recording in Hebrew (though I so hate to see myself on video- Tina has emboldened me) in the fall as the school yr is over for Hebrew…
    I think it helps in a tiny way as Hebrew doesn’t have as many cognates – (still it has way more than Mandarin) but the perception is that it’s so very different (prolly due to non-Romanized right to left alphabet…) Yet the kids, once their processors got revved up after several weeks, could begin to comprehend simple stories…

  7. Tina, I just love your response from which I can tell that you mean everything from the bottom of your heart and from lots of experience and the courage to try out new things, and not judge without giving it a real chance.

    You are one of my heroes!

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