Comprehensible Input: An Effective New Approach for Clairbourn’s Language Program

Nancy Ward
This year Clairbourn’s Spanish teacher and French teacher, Mary Drazic and Cara Barker, have both revolutionized their language classrooms with the Comprehensible Input (CI) style of instruction (also known as TPRS®—Teach Proficiency through Reading and Story-telling). Below, Mary Drazic provides insights into how CI is applied in language classrooms, followed by a brief history of the origins of CI (or TPRS®), as well as the research on its effectiveness, by French teacher Cara Barker:

Spanish Teacher Mary Drazic Shares Her Experience:
Clairbourn Spanish Teacher Mary Drazic
To prepare for this new style of teaching, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with the founder of the TPRS® method, Blaine Ray. He instructs in the CI (or TPRS®) style that we have brought to Clairbourn School, and the training was a game-changer! We learned German during the workshop. It was fantastic to not only learn the new instructional style, but also to be a successful product of it. By the end of the training, I could tell a story in German!

I am so happy to share with you my first impressions of this new instructional style as applied in Clairbourn’s language classes. The students’ engagement is through the roof. I have never seen students respond so well to Spanish—they are even laughing at jokes in their new language.
When learning a topic, they can emote by acting out what is happening during instruction and they can practice having appropriate responses to situations. For example, they are asked to respond in the target language with expression like, “Oh no!,” “That’s gross,” or “Ridiculous!”  Each student’s involvement enriches the overall experience.
Clairbourn students in Grade 8 French practice CI responses and storytelling exercises.
In one activity, called “Volleyball Reading,” the first student reads aloud a statement in Spanish and the second student translates it into English followed by reading aloud the next sentence in Spanish. They continue this pattern back-and-forth until they reach the end of the material to be covered or until the class bell rings.

The focus of these methods is to maximize Comprehensible Input (CI) in order to provide the language skills necessary for proficiency. This is done through meaningful exchanges in low anxiety situations. When students tell stories, they buy in and want to be part of creating the story, or they want to listen to see what happens.

This is a big change! Most of us have learned language the traditional way with grammar charts, textbooks, and homework. However, in CI (or TPRS®) less importance is put on homework because almost all of the learning and good practice takes place in the classroom. For this reason, attendance is critical.
Clairbourn’s “Volleyball Reading” activity in Grade 8 Spanish class.
Comprehensible Input students do a lot of reading, and reading comprehension counts for 30% of their assessment. The reading tasks range from matching, to translating sentences, to reading short stories and answering questions.Writing counts for an additional 30% of their assessment. There are two writing opportunities where students write about various pictures and then perform a “timed write.” Next comes repetitive listening to recordings performed by native voice actors. This counts for 20% of their assessment. The recordings are based on words from each chapter and may recycle words from previous chapters.

Timed speaking opportunities, where students describe what is happening in various pictures in the target language, account for 15% of their assessment. Students also complete a worksheet each week where they monitor their own participation and work habits, and this counts for the final 5% of their assessment. (View a Workshop Handout on understanding more about TPRS®.)
When students were asked to provide feedback on this new learning style, they shared, “It’s a lot of fun and everyone participates a lot.” “Now with this new program, I read and write more and have a better sense with tenses.” “I feel like I understand words being used in context a lot better.” “I think this new style is a lot less stressful.”

As a teacher reflecting on the roll-out of this new instructional style, what I am most excited about is that the students are constantly and actively engaging with the material. They are negotiating meanings, and their communication is purposeful. The content is not static—it is part of a larger story which they are helping to author. They are able to answer questions that show they have gained comprehension and understanding because they have been actively interpreting, reflecting, participating, and involving themselves in the language. I am so excited to be part of this dynamic process!”

Teacher Cara Barker Describes the Origins of CI (or TPRS®):
Clairbourn French & Latin teacher Cara Barker
The CI (or TPRS®) language-learning method incorporates some practices that have been around for a while. TPRS is short for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Story-telling. TPRS® is based on Stephen Krashen’s research regarding Comprehensible Input (CI) and James Asher’s teaching approach TPR (Total Physical Response). Krashen hypothesized that, when learning a new language, content is best presented that is just beyond the learners’ level of total understanding; this is what he referred to as CI+1. Subsequently, James Asher founded his TPR approach on this theory, using physical movements to make input comprehensible even though it was new to the learners. Asher’s approach, however, had its limitations and in the 1980s Blaine Ray began expanding on Asher’s work, adding components of story-telling and reading into the delivery of content.

Blaine Ray’s website explains his style of TPRS® as, “…a language teaching method based on the idea that the brain needs enormous amounts of Comprehensible Input (CI) to acquire a new language. It focuses on using interactive books and oral stories that contain the most commonly-used words and phrases…to help students get familiar with a new language easily and quickly. Ray combined Dr. Asher’s teaching method called Total Physical Response and Dr. Krashen’s CI-based language acquisition strategies. The result is a teaching method that focuses on the importance of teacher-student interaction and the use of CI in keeping the learner’s interest to become fluent in a new language. With TPRS®, the teachers promote language proficiency among students through contextualized, repetitive, and compelling CI, which can be in the form of children’s novels and interactive materials.”
The story of Blaine Ray and TPRS® .

Research data on the successful results of this method, aggregated from a variety of studies, can be found on Hillary Tejada’s educational blog. Thirty years later, TPRS® is fast becoming the most popular approach for language learning, and now Clairbourn students have opportunities to perform not just as well as those studying using traditional grammar methods, but better.
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