TPRS in the Adult ESL Classroom: Part 2—Translation

This is the second part in a series of blog posts on how to use TPRS in the adult ESL classroom. The first post in the series focused on age.

Traditional TPRS, as it is typically used in a K-12 foreign language classroom, relies pretty heavily on translation. TPRS emphasizes the importance of making sure all of the input that students receive is comprehensible, so most TPRS teachers translate new words into the students’ L1 in order to ensure that students understand exactly what the words mean. In ESL classes, however, translation into the students’ L1 is not always possible. Sometimes the teacher doesn’t speak the students’ L1, or sometimes the students speak a variety of different languages.

I once heard a teacher say that ESL teachers can’t use TPRS because TPRS requires translation. However, I have found that it is definitely possible to make TPRS work without translation. (And even Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS, doesn’t always use translation. Click here to see a video of him teaching English in China without translation.) If translation isn’t possible, we simply introduce word meanings the way we always do in these kinds of classes: by using pictures, gestures, giving definitions using words the students already know, and using examples.

Of course, this does take some additional planning. I usually plan ahead of time what words I will introduce in the story and make note of which words the students are likely to be unfamiliar with. I plan how I will explain the meanings of these new words, and I try to find pictures that I can show to students to help them understand the meaning. I often make a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the new words so I can have the pictures and corresponding words on display together for the students. I also do PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers) with the students on each new word as we look at the slides on the PowerPoint.

Also, remember that there are ways to establish meaning using the students’ L1 even if you don’t speak it yourself. For example, you can allow (and even encourage!) your students to use bilingual dictionaries in class when they don’t understand a word. And you can try to find word lists online of the most frequent words in English with translations into your students’ L1s. You can print out the lists and allow students to use them as a reference during class.

Personally, I still think it is best to provide quick translations of new words into the students’ L1 if possible, especially for words that can’t easily be conveyed through pictures or explanations. In one of the classes I teach, I know enough of my students’ L1 (Spanish) that I can provide translations of new words and phrases. I’ve found that it makes everything in class much easier and more efficient. When I don’t provide translations of new words, my students often turn to each other and converse together in their L1 to try to figure out what the word is. It ends up disrupting the flow of the story, and students sometimes have long discussions together in their L1 as they debate what the exact meaning of the word is. On the other hand, if I can provide a quick L1 translation, it causes much less of an interruption. Also, when I translate, I can be sure that my students understand the new words. In the classes where I don’t translate, I’m sometimes not sure if my students understood exactly what the words mean. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a horrible problem; even if the students don’t understand the exact meaning of the word, as they encounter that word more and more times in various different contexts, they will eventually come to understand the meaning. However, the process will probably happen more slowly than it would have if the student had understood the meaning when the word was first introduced.

If it’s possible for you to use your students’ L1 in order to provide quick translations of new words, I think it’s best. However, even without translation, TPRS is definitely still possible and can be used very effectively.

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