Teaching in a Natural Way

Krashen talks about the Natural Approach. Blaine Ray creates stories with his students in a most natural and effortless way. Susan Gross talks about the need to personalize our classrooms – what is more natural than that?

We can always get more relaxed with our kids, more natural with them. But the big irony is that we have to relax to do so. We have to appear less driven and frenetic in their eyes – only then will we attract their attention. They are trained in smelling out fake instruction.

How can we be real in our classrooms? How can we bring less intensity, which drives them away? It’s a Catch-22 – in order to reach our kids, we need to kick it back a few notches.

If I contribute anything to the discussion about how teachers can get get better at TPRS, I would like it to be in this area of becoming more natural in the classroom. I don’t think that agenda driven TPRS classes can work in the way that TPRS classes that are natural and free from overplanning can work. In the former we ask water to flow upstream, whereas in the letter we allow water to flow where it will. In the former, there is no flow, in the latter, water becomes oceans.

So in TPRS I want to help create activities that will allow the teachers to bond with their kids, in a natural and highly personal way. I don’t want to talk about why and how TPRS works so much. Leave that to the scholars.

“Covering” certain materials does not, cannot, and never will, work. This is what teachers who use textbooks are forced to do. It is implied by the textbook companies that teachers will be able to get the interest of their students if they do the activities presented in the book. Any teacher who has been at it for awhile knows how false that assumption is.

It doesn’t work because it is forced! “Hey kids! Today we are going to learn about ordering a meal in French!” and an internal groan goes up from all but a few of the kids. They don’t need to know that right now! They are not in a French speaking country and they are not hungry. So the lesson will then be forced, especially when the kids have in the back of their minds that they are going to be tested on this material. Or if they have to do a little memorized dialogue about it for a grade. Or if they just had lunch.

Where are THEY in the equation? Pleas don’t tell me that those little fake memorized dialogues they do with the silverware in front of class include them in the equation. Just don’t do that. If you tried to convince me that those little canned dialogues that you make them do help them learn L2, I would run away from you.

It is unnatural to teach things for which there is no immediate need, it is especially unnatural to test on those things, and it is unnatural to exclude the personalities of kids who are in the room when studying the language. If Krashen is right, if VanPatten and the others are right, that there must be a need to communicate in a social setting before language can be authentically acquired, then Blaine Ray has hit upon, up to this point in my own experience anyway, the only way to set that up, because in PQA and in stories, students are consistently placed in situations in which they actually want to find things out.

Let’s just mention a few of Krashen’s ideas here to refresh our memories about what he is saying about how we acquire languages – we can’t study Krashen enough:

1. Communicative Competence is defined in sociocultural terms, meaning that interacting in L2 is more than just a mental exercise, but a participatory, social one. Robots cannot converse.

2. The Affective Filter Hypothesis states there is a “filter” or “mental block” that keeps L2 from “getting in” – the lower the filter, the easier it is to learn L2. Thus, human contact of a relaxed nature, i.e. reaching kids in a way that is meaningful to them, increases acquistion of L2.

3. The Affective Hypothesis states that factors of motivation, interpersonal acceptance, and self-esteem deeply affect learning L2. Thus, we reach students by focusing on them and valuing them as human beings in our classes.

So, if we relax more, the flow of language will increase, and interest and meaning will go up due to that very relaxation. This change has to come from us, because the kids’ sense of trust and play and interest has been wounded in our schools. Further, as stated, we need to personalize our classrooms more and more, to the extent that the sharing of information of L2 actually bears on real things about our students.

We can no longer teach in a world of make believe, of ridiculously complicated curricula, of absurdly priced, complicated books filled with minutia that reach few kids. We can no longer teach in a world of distanced energy with our students, one in which the taste of testing sours every bite that the kids take of the language.

It really is a world of make believe that we have created in foreign language learning. What a sad thing we have done – we have forced our precious children to sit in worlds in which they are not really interested – our classrooms, and we have done it for over a hundred years. Any right thinking individual would want to do everything in their power to change that.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching in a Natural Way”

  1. A bunch of things in this post resonated with me, but focusing especially on this idea: “So in TPRS I want to help create activities that will allow the teachers to bond with their kids, in a natural and highly personal way. ”

    In Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido’s session yesterday (at NTPRS) they made the point that your curriculum = your students. That only by really listening to your students (and truly hearing them) can you create a classroom atmosphere that not only reaches them, but also engages them. This is important because as soon as a student shuts down or turns off, they aren’t paying as close attention (or any attention at all), which I would think would lower their rate of acquisition.

    Now, in many ways I think storytelling is a very natural thing to do — we tell stories ALL THE TIME. The news, current events, history, poetry, literature, all of it is really stories, so I can see that being a useful thing in the classroom to do, though I think our move away from purely storytelling (a la Blaine’s story structure) is a good thing. Doing those types of stories all the time would, probably, be just as unnatural as doing those contrived dialogues (though more appropriate for language acquisition, of course). I’m really becoming more and more convinced that we need to expand our definition of what a story is (i.e. use video, news, commercials, literature, twitter, etc) and have that be another way that we relate to our students (by focusing on things of interest to them, while also trying to expand their worldview in some way). Comprehensible Input + Personalization is really the key and there are many ways to realize that in the FL classroom. I think that’s really my focus and will be my focus in this upcoming school year. (Haha maybe that’s all vague, but it’s 7:30 AM and I’m just starting the day!)

  2. One of the workshops that I attended encouraged us to make our students our curriculum…. To know them SO well that we are constantly conforming our CI to their interest. I don’t know how difficult it will be….

    For example this morning I learned that the “biggest baby in the history of Spain” was born… I wonder if showing this headline (to upper levels is what I am imagining) would lead to some compelling CI? Who was the smallest baby in this class? Who was the largest baby? How much did “you weigh? I could tell how much I weighed? (keeping it in bounds of course…) Is that what you mean by “natural?”

    I wonder if we might help each other by brainstorming such “natural” flows of CI? I know that if I am very aware and in tune with my students I will discover ways that I can match CI to the REAL interests of my students….

    I recently read “Brandon Brown Wants a Dog” and I know that any student with a dog will relate and be interested in this story…. This would be for level 1…

    Thanks Ben for priming us to think about how to be “natural” with our students.

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