I am entering my 12th year as a teacher in Saline, MI. In the past I taught 3rd grade, 5th grade, Spanish/French/German Intro Class, Quest (Elementary Science), Middle School Spanish, and Elementary Spanish. My Bachelor's degree is in Education, with minors in Spanish, Science, and Structures of the Discipline. My Masters was in Education, and the 30+ additional credit hours I've taken since have focused on Spanish and Science. In particular, my Science classes focused mainly on the function of the brain. As a teacher, and throughout my life this has always been an interesting topic for me. I use the information I have learned about how the brain functions to guide me when I teach. It helped me when trying to decide HOW I wanted to teach my students language; to me, all the research seems to support TPRS/CI (Teaching Proficiency Through Storytelling and Comprehensive Input). In this post, I will explain my theory on why I think TPRS/CI is the language learning method our brains were made to do naturally (Thanks Blayne Ray, Dr. Krashen, Dr. VanPatten, and all the many amazing teachers who have been sharing this method of teaching).
The basic way the human brain functions is to send messages between neurons, along axons. For example, when someone you know walks into the room, one part of your brain tells your head to look up, another recalls the name of the person or tries to recognize them, a third causes the muscles in your face to react, etc.
All of these parts of your brain communicate via signals sent between neurons, along neural pathways. When you first start learning a tricky new skill it is hard work. That is because forming new neural pathways is hard work. When the brain learns a new language, you are creating an entirely NEW neural pathways between neurons (different than your first language). You are strengthening your brain (hooray)! However you are also challenging it. That is why when you first learn a tricky new skill ( a new sport, a new language, a musical instrument, etc.) it can be frustrating as it makes our brain work very hard. However, with practice, the neural pathway becomes stronger and faster (like working a muscle). The activity then becomes easier and more fun, and we become better at it, we enjoy it more, we do it more, and we get even better at it! The more you use the neural pathways, the faster signals can fire on them, and the quicker processing becomes. More neural pathways and communicating neurons, lead to more brain activity (a good thing)!
In addition, when we do things like create a gesture, connection, or image with a word and use it consistently, we are causing the same neurons to fire together. When neurons fire together on a regular basis, they sometimes continue to do so. Getting bonus strengthening of targeted neural paths. We are strengthening our brain (hooray).
What does this mean for language education?
It's great to strengthen our brain, but because we are making our brain work so hard, motivating it is important. One way we motivate the brain to continue forming the neural pathway is by making the activity meaningful. This is done in my classroom by focusing on the students in my lessons. What student doesn't like to talk about his or her self? In fact what person doesn't like to talk about their self? Personalizing lessons helps keep students focused. There is research in neurology done with brain imaging to support this (and it and a list of other suggested reading, can be found back under the 'Why TPRS/CI?" tab. I update this list periodically).
A fantastic way to personalize lessons is "Special Person" (Persona Especial via Bryce Hedstrom); read about it by clicking on his name. Another way is to use structured grammar targets to ask about students own lives (Personal Question Answer via Ben Slavic). Student interest surveys are also a helpful way to personalize. All of the above methods not only give you great inspiration for stories to tell with your students (in the target language); but also create a warm classroom climate, and teach you about your students.
One way I personalized recently when learning the 100 most frequently used words, is with stuffed animals from the "Minions' movie. Seeing familiar (and funny) characters, in a silly scenario makes students pay close attention. Look at how many hands go up n the below clip!
The setup is: I put together some words the students have learned this month into a 'sticker' challenge. Anyone contributing part of the correct translation gets a sticker. This is great, because I can reward students for effort, no matter what level their Spanish is at; some students are ready for complex translations, and some are just beginning to sort out the words. All levels are making great progress, and I love rewarding their work. I usually only use stickers at the start of the year when students are getting used to each other again (it helps warm up the classroom). However the stickers ARE in Spanish so I try (and often fail because I'm talking about something else) to say the words as I give them out, and teach them to the kids (more Comprehensible Input that they leave the classroom wearing)! Even though students make mistakes, you can see that they feel their effort will be rewarded, and they are safe to take risks, by the eager hands that pop up. An example of this in the videos below. Please excuse my loud voice at the start of the first video (each video is less than a minute long).
Another way to personalize lessons is by focusing stories on students, student interviews (through class pets); and through this website (by finding videos/games/songs/cartoons and books that enhance what we study). Students seeing Spanish applied to things that are important to them (such as the Frozen soundtrack) helps them see that Spanish is an active and important part of the world. It also keeps them interested in learning more! One of my favorite moments of last school year is when my Kindergarten class showed up dressed for "Frozen Day". I didn't know it was coming, but I DID have a version of "Let It Go/ Libre Soy" on my website. I quickly taught them to sing 'Libre Soy' and told them to listen for the word 'frío' and we had the best dance party ever. Those kids were singing their hearts out, and many little voices left the class quietly singing, "Libre soy, libre soy!"
This ties into another way we encourage the brain to learn, by keeping things novel. Our brain likes to focus on what is important to us, and in the past (and present), new behavior was (is) something that interests us. In addition we like to enjoy ourselves. If we are doing the same thing over and over and over our brain gets bored and less likely to want to continue paying attention. This isn't very helpful, when repetition is also important when learning a new skill as it helps keep the neural pathways strong. This is especially important when building a new neural pathway (as in when acquiring a second language). Think about trying to teach a baby to talk. If you want the baby to be interested in the word, you repeat it in different ways. You use silly voices, make faces, and repeat it frequently to help them learn the word. You do not sit with the baby talking about modifying nouns, vocabulary lists, and pronunciation. We do not think of these rules in natural conversation either. This is the same concept, applied to older learners. You don't stop trying because the student does not immediately process language, they will get it eventually if they keep getting comprehensible input.
How do we keep something both novel and repeat it a lot? One way is with humor, as seen in the above post, I try to make stories have a funny twist. It keeps the students paying attention (and even joking in Spanish). Another way is by changing up how we do things. I am always monitoring the 'mood' of the students. I want to push them to try just a little bit more (strengthening the neural pathways); but when I can see they are done, we move onto something else. I hesitate to call this a 'brain brake' as it is actually just practicing the same information in a new and novel way. Sometimes it is through a game, sometimes through directed (in Spanish of course) exercise (also great for the brain and neural growth/plasticity). We also use stories, a cartoons, music, games and much more. There are so many ways to practice the same language skills in new ways. It keeps the classroom interesting and fun! I try not to add to much new information until I see students start to process what we have already learned at a quicker pace.
I hope this helps to shed some light on what goes on in my Spanish classroom!
To learn more about brain plasticity and short term memory, check out one of the videos below. There is great information in the first video about growing neural pathways, but one big error. The speaker says the child's brain has more plasticity than the adults. This has been proven to be untrue. He states this is why the child can learn to ride the "brain bike" much more quickly than he could. It is not this, but rather the strength of the original path overriding the new path in the adult brain that causes it to be harder for an adult to learn, not lack of plasticity. :)
Want to know more?
If you'd like to read more about any of the topics in my article, please click on the "Why TPRS/CI" button below, and then on "Further Reading" this is a constantly updating list (as I read good articles I add them here, most of the time). ;)
A short version of this information via Google Slides is also available. Feel free to use it if if will help you explain this to others, as long as you credit me. :)
The three below videos also support my Classroom Theory. The only one I have a slight disagreement with is the "Backwards Brain Bike" (though most of it is good, so I kept it); in it the speaker says that adults brain are not plastic (having the ability to change, learn, and grow). This has been proven to be false, especially if we take care of our brains by challenging them, physical exorcise, and good food (but that is a whole different topic).
I hope this post helps others in their language learning journey!
If your curious how these learning rules apply to adults click here.
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.