A paradox of priorities

Even though I like to think of myself as a smarty smart pants, sometimes I am a really slow learner. I’ve been doing a TPRSish style of teaching for about 2 years now and the other morning, I was reflecting on something that the coach said during the workshop I attended. One of my fellow attendees asked if he used thematic units or just taught whatever happened to come up. He explained that you can do it either way (and it’s a matter of preference) but his focus was on the high frequency vocabulary, so his style was stories strictly based on trying to get students to learn said high frequency vocabulary.

When I did the switch, I still kept my thematic units – I just made stories to match. However, I figured out this year that it meant that I still have a hodgepodge of different strategies going on, and they’re not meshing very well anymore. I can’t focus on high frequency vocabulary AND all the bonus vocabulary at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s simply too many words. On top of that, when I taught thematic units, I could remember that in this unit in this class, we learned these words. Well, that doesn’t necessarily happen anymore, because some units are more story-focused and some are not nearly repetitive enough for students to acquire that vocabulary. I can tell you right now that my Spanish 2 students this year are not going to remember a thing from the recipes unit, and that is 10,000% my fault. I didn’t do the reps. I got lazy.

The Spanish 2 class is the one that is actually bringing my problem to light, because the recipe unit used to go in the spring. My problem was, however, that part of the unit involves cooking and sharing food (yay!) but it always landed during Lent and wrestling season. With a high Catholic population in my school plus very serious wrestlers (especially around conference and districts), I felt bad that some of the students couldn’t fully participate. I decided to move the cooking unit to the fall, and push the childhood unit to the spring.

So here I am in the spring, and about to teach this childhood unit. Except, it is not a good unit. My unit plan goes something like: PQA, PQA, PQA, some stories I guess, Pobre Inocente embedded reading+watch the episode of Modern Family. We did the Pobre Inocente story before Christmas (it’s a Christmas story, after all) and that’s really the only chunk of this unit worth keeping. You see, the childhood unit is a legacy unit left over from when I used to teach by grammar point – of course, it’s the unit where we introduce the imperfect tense. But… this year, my Spanish 2 students have been using imperfect and preterite together from the beginning. It makes no sense to have a unit where we focus on just one of the two past tenses. On top of that, after coming out of my fall semester black hole, I can’t remember what words we’ve focused on in preterite and which in imperfect. I know they can’t apply the rule to conjugate, but how many of our high frequency verbs did they really acquire? This is a problem. I don’t know. And if I don’t know what they don’t know, I can’t lead them to the next chunk of words.

This also affects part of my behavioral plan, the preferred activity time. The way I do it involves earning points for both time on task and individual points for participation (using ClassDojo). However, I only use this system when we are working through a story as a group. So if I do a lot of non-story specific or individual tasks then the students don’t earn any points and therefore have no minutes accrued when it comes to use their time on Fridays. It hasn’t become a problem… yet. But it could be, so I worry.

So this is my paradox of priorities. Do I stay with the thematic units, or do I restructure everything around stories and high frequency vocabulary? There’s always something that has to give if I’m going to take pieces of something else – I only have so many days to work with them. But it would certainly be easier if I knew exactly what basic structures I taught that EVERYONE knows and everything else is nice-to-know since I can’t control that anyway. But then should I just do random stories, or switch to a novel-based format? I don’t have the answers yet (and I probably will change my mind another 20 times in my teaching career, even if I do think I have AN answer). But I’m thinking hard about it.


6 thoughts on “A paradox of priorities

  1. Here are some questions I would ask myself in this kind of situation, and they might help you:

    1) What my students are doing now is all well and good, but long-term success is a messy question; what is more likely to catch their interest enough to motivate them to spend time on a language journey after my class?

    2) How much of communication is NOT high-frequency words and what does that mean about my curriculum design?

    3) If high-frequency words are actually high-frequency, perhaps a better question is not what WILL get them into class but rather what might PREVENT them? I would think I’d need to work pretty hard to eliminate high-frequency words since they are the words we need the most and that’s what makes them HF?

    4) What kind of curriculum planning helps me stay more sane?

    It’s an excellent process to reflect on!

    best wishes 🙂


    • Those are some excellent questions! I think that #2 and #3 are my most pressing issues – high-frequency words basically teach themselves, but how do I decide what is a secondary tier of importance and how do I best teach them? Of course, if we had the answers, we would be gazillionaires. 🙂

  2. The same thing happened to me after my first year of TPRS. I reached a breaking point where I needed to get out of the ‘transition’ phase and figure out what my courses were going to look like for the foreseeable future. I started with one course at a time and trying to manage the crazy in the other courses until I had time to focus on their curriculum mapping, too. In my experience, if you are convinced that CI methods are the most effective way to teach, you will need to find or develop new content to approach that material through CI. Depending on what you find/create, some non HF words will become target structures for those units, and the others will vary from class to class. Mapping out my curriculum was essential to my students’ success, because I was able to strategically recycle previously targeted structures and constructions as we moved forward in the year. Having it written out helped me to stay sane and to get better results from my students. (Like the workshop coach said…some teachers do this w/o mapping out curriculum, but I think that it takes a very specific type of person!) I would not switch to ‘just stories’, because it tends to get really old, really fast. Make a list of all of the CI methods that are out there (using novels being one of them and TPRS® being another), and employ all of them throughout the year! “They” say that it takes 3 years to get your feet under you and find your direction/style once you decide to make the switch to CI, so you are almost there! You’re asking great questions!

    • This is why I like using your materials so much. When I look at my CI-based plans that have clearly targeted structures, and then I notice my smart-past-self intentionally repeated them later, I feel like those are good lessons with high value. They have high participation, the students acquire more quickly, and everything is super. Then there are some units where I look at them and go ‘this is very… not so good.’ It’s functional, and the kids are learning, but they aren’t learning as effectively as they could be. I feel like I’m at that tipping point as well – I need to really go through what was essentially my survival-CI phase of lessons and figure out exactly where everything is going to go in what order, and make sure I recycle structures so they’re not forgotten, rather than just winging it and congratulating myself for doing it properly 1/3 of the time! Ironically, I feel like last year I was more intentional in my lesson planning and structure than I have been this year, and it shows. That’s something for me to focus on as we move through the early part of 2016.

      • I’ve ditched a lot of the stories that I used/wrote in the first 1.5 years after I made the switch because YES students loved them and learned the structures, but I couldn’t fit them into the ‘big picture’ in a way that made sense. So I totally get what you say with, “they aren’t learning as effectively as they could be”. I’m excited to see what you come up with, especially since you are putting so much thought into it!

  3. I know exactly how you feel! I’ve been reading the blogs about TPRS and testing techniques out for almost 2 years, but I have yet to surrender the thematic units I inherited from my textbook.

    While I try to transition more and more toward a focus on high-frequency vocabulary, I can’t help but notice that the traditional units ARE the familiar topics students need to address in order to reach Intermediate proficiency levels — personal descriptions, school, food, family, etc.

    Plus, I believe thematic units with a TPRS slant are more understandable for parents, administration, and even students as a course structure.

    Ideally, I would abandon my old textbook units and go full-on proficiency, but I’m not nearly that organized or that confident! Therefore, I will continue to develop my own hybrid.

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