This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By Marji McIlvaine
What could make a homeschool mom (25 years), homeschool Spanish/French teacher (20
years), language student (six languages, many years!) change her whole approach to
foreign language? The discovery of a revolutionary way of learning and teaching language
that leads to proficiency quickly and effectively, uses whole-brain teaching and learning, and
is fun to boot! After twenty years of teaching using a very traditional (albeit playful)
approach, I finally found something that works. My excitement for us, the homeschool
community, is unbounded!
Following is a brief overview of the major methodologies in teaching foreign language, along
with some of the main curricula available that match the method. Many curricula blend
methodologies; I have taken the companies’ own explanations and merged them with my
All language study, if —and only if—it is positive, can be of benefit. Your student will learn
some of, or about, the language no matter which method and curriculum you choose. All
approaches, however, do not lead to proficiency in the language or the ability to speak it.
Did you take a foreign language in high school? If so, how proficient are you in that
First, what is your purpose in investing your money and time in language learning? Do you
want your student to learn about the language, to recognize and understand some of the
language, or all of the above, as well as learn to speak? Your purpose should drive your
choice of method.
So many people have said to me in frustration, “I bought such-and-such curriculum, but my
child won’t say a word.” That’s because the curriculum isn’t teaching your child to speak the
language! It may be teaching your child to recognize and repeat vocabulary, but that isn’t
speaking. It is unjust to expect a curriculum to teach what it doesn’t offer.
So popular in name! True immersion method is just what it says: immersion in the language
and figuring out what is being said. True immersion does not translate into English, but the
student hears native speakers (a good thing), and learns to recognize the target language
(the one he is studying). However, it is a disadvantage that although your child is learning
to recognize the language and understand some of it, he is not learning to speak and use it.
Repetition of phrases is not equivalent to speaking and communicating. Since there is no
translation, students can also confuse what is being targeted and consequently do not learn
why different words are used.
Immersion methods seem similar to those used with most music appreciation classes. The
student learns things about the music and learns to recognize composers, styles, tempos,
etc., but he is not learning to play. Examples of curricula that use this approach include
Rosetta Stone, The Learnables, and Tell Me More (partly).
If you took a foreign language course in high school, this is probably the way you learned.
Typically, you use a textbook with vocabulary lists, dialogues to memorize, grammar points
to learn, verbs to conjugate, and exercises to fill out in order to practice the grammar point
being focused on. This is the method I have used for more than twenty years.
This leads to proficiency in about 5% of students who are taught this way; the rest learn
about the language, but the course of study doesn’t lead to proficiency. If you don’t work
outside the boundaries of the book or computer program to make the learning applied and
active, it can be, well, stultifying, absolutely killing the joy of learning and making language
study a Thing to Be Dreaded. Examples of curricula that use this approach include A Beka,
Bob Jones University, Switched-On Schoolhouse, Rod and Staff, ACE, The Easy Spanish, and
many audio CD and Internet programs, etc.
Total Physical Response (TPR)
Look I Can Talk by Blaine Ray is an example of this type of approach, which came into being
in the 1980s. Mr. Ray is still at work, teaching with this method all over the world. You can
find some of his videos on YouTube.
With this method, the student acts out every single expression; language is taught by
involvement with each expression. The instruction begins with commands that involve the
students’ whole bodies and whole brains. You might, for example, begin with this text:
“Stand up. Walk to the door. Grab the pig. Grab the pig’s nose. Put the pig on someone’s
head.” Instruction progresses to include the use of different structures and actions, asking
and answering questions, all centered on the commands or phrases given.
This method is highly effective for the student who desires to learn how to proficiently use
the language. A few drawbacks are that you first need to know the language in order to use
it, and after a while students can get burned out on the commands and actions. However,
most students have amazing success in remembering and using whatever they have
learned, and they enjoy the time spent in class.
Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS)
Finally, we arrive at the method that has transformed my teaching of foreign language! This
is the maturation of the TPR method above. A large part of the methodology is based in
Jesus’ own method: using stories to teach. When you can create an emotional connection to
a story or topic, your students remember it better. When a student is involved in learning,
he remembers what he has done.
TPRS curricula begin with the most commonly used words in a language and teach those
words in different structures, in a variety of ways: actions and motions, asking students
questions (mostly yes/no answers), and changing the questions up with humor and high
interest to keep the students using the language. Grammar is used in every lesson but is
taught through meaning, not through separation of the elements of grammar. Once the
structures have been used and understood by everyone, then they are set into stories that
the students “write” verbally and act out.
This methodology is also based on the student receiving “comprehensible input,” i.e.,
knowing what the structures in foreign language mean because they are first presented in
English. Instruction is actually based on the way we acquire language as children. Let me
elaborate: When our children say, “I runned fast!” we don’t respond: “No, that past tense is
incorrect. The simple past tense form of to run is ran.” We say: “That’s great, Sweetie! You
ran so fast.” We give the child the correct input many times until he produces it correctly—
because it “sounds right.” Later, when asked, or when necessary, we teach him that ran is
the past tense of to run, . . . but he has already been using it correctly for a long time.
Without doubt, TPRS is the most fun, most effective foreign language learning I have ever
been a part of. At present, there is only one curriculum I know of that takes this method
and packages it for the homeschool community, both for the tutor and for the parent (there
are videos for the parents who don’t speak the language), but more language courses will
be available soon. Examples of curricula that use this dynamic approach include Excelerate
Spanish by Caryn Hommel, a homeschool curriculum with videos; Raconte-moi encore by
Gaab, Placido, & André; and Cuéntame más by Gaab & Placido.
Before You Buy
Read reviews. Get a sample and try it yourself. Ask these questions:
1. What method of teaching is used?
2. In a one-hour class, how would you break down the approximate minutes spent:
hearing the language, repeating, writing, and originating personal thoughts into
3. How is the student learning to speak? Watch for the differences between speaking
4. What level of proficiency does the average student attain, and how is this measured?
5. When and how is English used?
6. What percentage of students advance to the next level of the language?
But I Already Bought …
What can you do if you have already invested in a language course and it isn’t working?
Besides sell it and start over, you can adapt!
If it uses immersion methodology and your student has hit the wall, translate it and make it
comprehensible. Then, with any methodology, play! Play Bingo with the words, or play
Horse with a basketball, or have the student write and illustrate stories using a few of the
verbs and vocabulary. Find something your student enjoys, and personalize it.
Listen to the language, using kids’ songs and simple books on tape. Watch a DVD in the
language for five minutes, and have the student write down everything he thinks he heard.
Bring that language to life!
I will never go back to my traditional way of teaching. The revolutionary approach of TPRS
fits hand-in-glove with homeschooling philosophies and is what changed me after twenty
years! It uses the method Jesus Himself used with the people He was teaching. If you want
your children to learn proficiency, ask your tutors to explore TPRS, or give it a try yourself.
In a nutshell, whatever your choice, make it positive for your children. If you don’t like the
curriculum you have, adapt it. Don’t expect from a curriculum what is doesn’t offer. Above
all, at least for this one subject, enjoy it! You are equipping your children to communicate
the truth of the Gospel of Jesus through building relationships—the highest purpose of
language. Let the fun begin!
After homeschooling for twenty-five years and through six children, Marji finds God’s world
a richer, more fascinating place than ever before. Joyfully she shares the truth of the
Creator God through teaching in homeschool classes locally and online through Landry
Academy. Author of a small, sneaky grammar book titled Home School Ad Libs (available
through Rainbow Resource), she has been a student of six languages, has a B.A. in Spanish
from the University of Florida, graduate hours from ECU, and a well-worn degree from the
University of Homeschooling.
Copyright 2014, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the Annual Print 2014 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education
magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and
download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.