Automaticity and Transparency

TPRS is awesome. It is powerful and it empowers students.

It has also redirected my idea of what students should be able to do after learning language in class. Before TPRS, I didn’t know that language that students learned in class could be internalized. I didn’t know it could become automatic for students. My own language learning experiences were nothing like that. I always had to think about each individual word as I heard it. I had to translate it and hope that I could think fast enough to respond before it was too late and the conversation had shifted to another topic. It wasn’t until I worked as a TA in the Spanish department during graduate school with 20 or so other students (all but two of whom were native Spanish speakers from all over the world) that Spanish became automatic for me like it does for my students.

I am floored on an almost daily basis by what the students are able to do. I used to teach grammar and chase down students for homework assignments and, as most teachers I have talked to do, wonder why grades were still so low for most students. Why did they have so much trouble internalizing and memorizing everything I was asking them to (vocabulary; grammar-verb endings in multiple tenses, gender and number agreement, the fact that there are 4 different ways to say “the”; listening comprehension skills; reading comprehension skills; writing accuracy; etc)?

Then I started with TPRS…

I have found that the level of anxiety is much lower for the students and for me. I have found that students, through hearing target structures over and over again in new contexts (new stories) are building automaticity.


I used to ask “¿Cómo te llamas?” (what’s your name) and get blank stares. Students I had taught for years wouldn’t know what I was asking them. Then TPRS came along. Every time I introduce a character, I ask the class for suggestions “¿Cómo se llama la chica/el chico?” They raise their hands to answer. I repeat their suggestion to the student actor, “¿Te llamas ___? ¿No? Clase, la chica/el chico no se llama __. ¿Cómo se llama?” So that’s four repetitions of the target phrase (with slight variation for when I’m talking about the person and to the person directly).

This is the procedure every time we meet a new character in every story. The students get so much repetition and they have fun (or at least they are engaged) because they are getting to make their own suggestions for the character’s name (in other words, they get to show off, they get to make their friends laugh, etc). Over the year and 2 months that I have used TPRS, this form (and several others) have become automatic for the kids. As soon as I ask what someone’s name is, they answer without much conscious thought. It’s automatic.


Even with all of its effectiveness and power, one issue that I am running into with TPRS currently is that after using it for a while, the kids have figured out my game. They know the stories are all similar and they can guess what will happen. Some of them think that this is a lack of creativity or that this is making the class boring. There has been some dissension in the ranks, as it were. Some of the kids are “over” it.

In trying to figure out how to deal with this problem, I have come upon a pretty interesting solution: transparency. The kids need to know what they are able to do and how I am working to get them there. In other words, I have taken a little time to draw their attention to what automaticity is and what it means in my class and then to show them just how automatic some of the things we have learned have become for them.

You see, the kids are able to do several different linguistic tasks automatically, that is, without putting conscious effort into them. What I figured out recently was that they didn’t realize it. They didn’t know just how much they know. Just look at this post. The kid thought he didn’t know Spanish, but he is able to read and understand pretty much anything I say in class and he can write using the target structures we have learned and he can respond in short sentences in Spanish when I speak with him (related to what we are talking about, of course, he wouldn’t understand much if I started talking about politics or philosophy, but not many 8th graders would understand that stuff very well in their own L1). Which is to say, he didn’t know how much he actually knows.

It is true that we talk about this in English and that it takes away from both my curriculum and my goal of #tl90plus, but sometimes my class goals are about more than just language acquisition. I don’t just want the kids to acquire, I want them to understand how it is working in their heads and I want them to know what they are able to do. Metacognition, thinking about thinking, is something that all teachers should help students to perform. If it means taking time out of my high-frequency vocabulary based syllabus to help them understand just what they are capable of doing and what my goal is for them, they can work towards that goal. I can help them to understand not only the language, but what learning (and acquiring) the language looks like.

It has gone well. Every class that I have spoken with about automaticity has had a (sometimes literal) aha moment when they realize that they don’t have to think about how to answer, they just do. I am hoping that I can build on this enthusiasm and use it to make some new linguistic tasks automatic too.


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