Dr. Stephen Krashen

Dr. Stephen Krashen is a professor of Education at the University of Southern California.  He is a leading expert in brain development and learning.  He attended an eight hour Fluency Fast class led by Linda Li on Mandarin at the 2007 National TPRS Conference.  The following letter describes his personal experience of the TPRS methodology.

“I got far more comprehensible input in the first 20 minutes in the first session of the TPRS Mandarin class than I had during the entire time I had been in Taiwan.  It was dramatic confirmation of the value of the language class.”

Professor Stephen D. Krashen

Letter from Stephen Krashen, January 7, 2008

Since 2000, when I started visiting Taiwan to give lectures and go to conferences, I have probably spent a total of at least a month in Taipei.  Despite my interest in languages, this exposure did me no good in acquiring Mandarin.  Until last summer, all I could say (and understand) was “I like ice cream” and a few more phrases I learned from a wonderful tape that my former student Lucy Tse made for me many years ago.

This is, of course, understandable.  The outside world does not provide comprehensible input for adult beginners, or does so very reluctantly.  That´s why we have foreign language classrooms.  The role of the class is to provide the comprehensible input that the output world does not.

This was confirmed for me:  I got far more comprehensible input in the first 20 minutes in the first session of the TPRS Mandarin class than I had during the entire time I had been in Taiwan.  It was dramatic confirmation of the value of the language class.

My description of the class is a list of the things Linda Li did right.  I would include what she did wrong, but she didn´t do anything wrong.  Of course, I define right and wrong as follows:

RIGHT: Consistent with my current view of how language is acquired.

WRONG:  Inconsistent with my current view of how language is acquired.

Comprehensible Input

Everything was comprehensible.  Everything.  Input was not always comprehensible the first time I heard it, but eventually everything was.  Linda made sure of this.  She was never afraid to use every tool available to her to make input comprehensible, motions, pictures, and generous use of translation on the board.  (Why not?  The translation was not there as orders to memorize the words but as a resource.  No time was lost with elaborate non-verbal means when it would have been difficult, and the feeling of the class was very Mandarin.)

One of the most dramatic and important things Linda did was to tell the false beginners (who already had a bit of language knowledge) to calm down.  This happened the first day, after about 30 minutes.  The result was dramatic.  I think this was because the real beginners stopped feeling that something was wrong with them.  False beginners give real beginners the impression that other students are progressing much more rapidly.

Linda ignored the false beginners when providing input.  I noticed that she did not base her rephasing and repetitions on the reactions of those who understood the best – these were, usually, the false beginners.  Instead, she was incredibly sensitive to where the real beginners were.

No forced speech.

Speaking was gently encouraged, but never required.  No student was called on, except for a very few occasions near the end of the course.  When this happened, Linda knew who she was calling on and how much they could say.


Providing comprehensible input and not forcing speech does a great deal to keep anxieties low, but in addition to doing this, Linda Li did more than that.  It was obvious that she liked us!  She was happy to be there, and was “in the moment” at all times.  She managed to make input interesting to students with no knowledge of a language that had no cognates with other languages they knew.  This was amazing.

Back to Taiwan.

Of course, eight hours of Mandarin wasn´t enough to make me an intermediate, not enough to put me in a position where I could have conversations with native speakers, even very dedicated ones.  It was just enough to get me in trouble, starting an exchange and understanding nothing of what the other person said in response.  And sometimes, my attempts to communicate were met with a combination of astonishment and laughter.  But it felt GOOD.  

My best conversational partners were my good friends Kwan and Sean, who treated my attempts to speak Mandarin with respect.  (Kwan is seven years old.  Sean is nine, the children of my colleague Syying Lee.)  My Mandarin is now good enough for me to start doing some narrow listening, making recordings of my friends and colleagues talking about topics of interest to me, and of course listening to Linda Li´s CD, which seems to have been made just for me!

Stephen Krashen
University of Southern California

Three Key Players

TPR (and TPRS) is built on the theory and research of many language acquisition specialists and continues to develop according to the findings of classroom experimentation and new brain research.  Three key players in the development of this method are worth exploring in more depth.  The following summaries by Elizabeth Skelton, in her book Putting It Together: TPRS as a Sheltering Strategy for ESL provide a more in-depth understanding of the theories of James AsherStephen Krashen, and Blaine Ray.

Click here for a summary on the original work on TPR by Dr. James Asher.

Stephen Krashen´s five interrelated hypothesis on second language acquisition have significantly impacted the TPRS language teaching method (Krashen, 1981).  According to Krashen´s theory, language acquisition is a subconscious and intuitive process much like how children seem to pick up their first language.  When students are focused on understanding the meaning of a message, rather than the form of the message, they are naturally acquiring language.  Students in a TPRS class acquire language naturally because they focus on the meaning of a the content and actively participate in creating stories.  In contrast, focusing on form, figuring out rules, and memorizing word lists and verb conjugations are characteristic of language learning.  According to Krashen, language learning is more difficult and rarely leads to oral fluency.  Krashen is not opposed to teachers highlighting essential rules or pointing out subtle language forms when students have achieved a certain level of competence in the target language, but he cautions against following a strict grammar syllabus, which focuses instruction on one rule after another.  If students are focused on form, he believes they will develop a strong monitor, which impedes fluency.

The monitor, the second part of Krashen´s five-pronged theory, states that language learners will consciously examine their own speech, if they have not truly acquired the language, but rather learned it through rules and lists.  While conscious review is important for writing accurately, making correct accent marks, and placing punctuation according to standards, the monitor can seriously limit fluent speaking.  Students who are focused on form often speak haltingly, checking every word and phrase for accuracy before proceeding.  Because they have learned the rules for the language, they check their own speech against the rules before producing an answer or participating in a dialog.  Try this experiment on yourself.  Try to speak fluently about what you did last night without using any words with the letter n.  For example, you may not say “went”, “on”, or “next.”  Find a new word to replace the letter n.  Speak out loud and see how fluent you are.  Although this is an artificial rule in English, when you focused on the n rule, your fluency probably declined quickly.  You probably had to rephase what you wanted to say and avoid some phrases all together.  This simulation may help you understand the monitor hypothesis.

Students who have acquired language forms will naturally use this language in appropriate situations and not have to monitor their speech.  For example, while I was learning Spanish in an intensive, grammar-based program, I struggled with the subjunctive and imperative modes.  I avoided using the subjunctive at all costs!  I tried to speak around the subjunctive whenever possible, just like finding a word without an n!  However, when my host mother regularly sent me off to school with “¡Que tengas un buen día!” or responded to my stories of daily events with “¡No me digas!”, I quickly acquired these expressions.  I didn´t have to monitor my speech when using these imperative expressions later.  I didn´t have to refer to the verb forms list stored in my brain.  When saying these forms, which I had naturally acquired, I sounded fluent!  Most English Language Learners find that participating in a TPRS class enables them to speak more fluently in a variety of situations, because they no longer monitor their speech so closely.

The third part of Krashen´s theory is the natural order of acquisition, which suggests that the acquisition of grammatical structures follows a “natural order.”  Language learners will first acquire that which has the most meaning and structures to which they have been repeatedly and consistently exposed.  The last structures acquired are those that cause the least confusion if done wrong.  For example, many non-native English speakers struggle with adding the third-person singular s on verbs.  For example, they say sentences like, “My brother work in a factory and make a lot of money.”

Although this grammatical structure is usually introduced in the very beginning of a grammar-based language course, many students do not acquire it until much later, because dropping the third person singular s causes no confusion for native speakers.  These same students can often fill in the blanks of a grammar test with the correct forms of the verbs and add the s whenever appropriate on such tests.  They can do this because they have time to monitor their language, access the rule, and apply it appropriately.  When they begin speaking fluently, however, and focus on meaning, rather than form, many speakers will continue to drop the s.

Another illustration of the natural order hypothesis is found with native English speakers.  A large number of native English speakers hear non-standard grammar everyday and their speech reflects this consistent, frequent exposure (e.g. I seen that movie.  Me and him are going home.  We had went there.  If I was you….)  Teachers attempt to teach standard grammar rules, but students have acquired the patterns with the most repetition.  TPRS delays formal grammar instruction, but introduces correct grammatical structures from the beginning through meaningful contexts and natural conversation.  Students in a TPRS class acquire correct grammatical forms because they hold meaning and teachers consistently and repeatedly use these structures.

Providing comprehensible input is the fourth part of Krashen´s second language acquisition theory.  Krashen believes that students must understand the message in the target language in order to acquire new vocabulary and structures.  This hypothesis explains how many adult English Language Learners can live in the United States for years and not acquire English.  If they have not understood the messages they have heard on the street, in the store, and at their work place, they will not make progress in English.  If students in the K-12 school system do not receive comprehensible input, they will also fail to thrive despite hearing English all day long.  An immersion environment or an inclusion classroom can only be effective if the students can understand the lessons.  If they cannot follow the lesson or understand the language of instruction, immersion quickly becomes submersion for these students.  TPRS provides a powerful method for teachers to shelter their content instruction and make grade-level lessons in science, social studies, math and language arts more comprehensible.

The final part of Krashen´s language acquisition theory hightlights the importance of our emotional state.  Krashen claims that students who are anxious, nervous, or tired may develop a strong affective filter, which can severly limit language acquisition.  English Language Learners come to school or to an adult ESL program with a host of issues that may build their affective filter.  Feeling unwelcome, fearing deportation, sensing prejudice, dressing differently, and simply not understanding are just some of the reasons English Language Learners may build an affective filter.  As language teachers, we must be aware of this phenomenon and strive to create a comfortable, welcoming, low-stress classroom environment, so that language acquisition will be possible.  A colleague who recently experienced the affective filter phenomenon in a language class described it to me as “a cognitive shut-down.”  She said, “One minute I could understand everything and then I felt pressured to perform and I couldn´t understand anything anymore!”  The anxiety literally created a barrier or filter to further acquisition.  The TPRS method encourages teachers to use humor, personal stories, and group responses to lower the affective filter in the classroom.

Click here for a summary on the development of TPRS by Blaine Ray.

– from Elizabeth Skelton, Putting It Together


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