Owen Cherry/ The Mainstream
Tratz asks Libby Fregoso (left) and Kylie Merlino (right) questions in Spanish during class.

Spanish instructor uses unique teaching method to increase student language acquisition

Learning a language can be hard, but it shouldn’t be boring. That’s why Nicholas Tratz, the Spanish instructor at Umpqua Community College, takes a novel approach to language learning.

The fundamental difference between standard language teaching and Tratz’s approach lies in the distinction between learning about a language and acquiring a language. “Acquisition is when a student’s mind has actually taken in the words and phrases of language and made sense of them,” Tratz says. “This is totally different from learning about a language, which involves learning how to conjugate a verb and other grammatical facts about a language.”

Tratz tries to help students acquire the language, not just learn about it. “A good analogy is riding a bike,” Tratz says. “Learning about a language is like learning the names and functions of every part of a bike.”

“Only about five percent of students actually acquire a language through learning about the language. The other 95% just learn some facts about the language,” Tratz says. “The problem with language teaching is that the five percent usually are the ones that go on to become language teachers themselves. They then implement the same style of language instruction that they learned even though it is not very effective for most students.”

Tratz’s language teaching method is called “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling,” abbreviated TPRS. The TPRS approach mimics the way children learn language naturally through spending thousands of hours hearing the language, even though they comprehend little of what they hear at first. They build language proficiency through gradually learning bits and pieces of language in a technique called “immersion.”

“There is a problem with using the immersion approach to teaching language, however,” Tratz says. “In a classroom setting, we only have a few hours each week to engage the students in the language. If the language that students hear in the classroom is mostly incomprehensible, they will tune out and learning is poor,” Tratz says.

That’s why Tratz has adopted TPRS. “The TPRS approach to learning emphasizes the need for language engagement in the classroom to be three things: comprehensible, repetitive, and compelling,” Tratz says.

“Comprehensible engagement involves limiting the number of vocabulary and language structures being taught in a lesson to just a few things,” Tratz says. “Keeping the language use comprehensible can speed up the language learning process.” For example, rather than giving a vocabulary list of 100 words during a class, Tratz often introduces some new vocabulary words to the class and then helps the class use the new words in a variety of ways.

Another key aspect of TPRS is reviewing the language students have already learned. “Keeping the language engagement repetitive helps students recall what they have learned,” says Tratz.

“I do this by asking the class a lot of questions using the terms I am trying to teach. I ask questions involving who, what, when, where, and why; either/or questions; and yes or no questions.”

TPRS language learning won’t work if it bores students. “If students do not find the class activities on language interesting, they will disengage and stop learning,” Tratz says.

Tratz implements TPRS in the classroom in several ways including storytelling, questioning, and having students interact with each other using the language that they have learned. “Storytelling is a key part of using TPRS techniques in the classroom,” says Tratz. “But I have found that students want to have just some basic question-and-answer type of engagement as well, so I don’t limit it just to storytelling.”

Tratz often involves students in the stories he tells in class. “I like using students as actors in the stories I tell. It’s simple and really helps keep the students engaged,” says Tratz. “A key part of keeping stories interesting for students is to not settle for the expected. The brain craves novelty, so I try to have the students supply the unexpected details and plot twists that make a story unique and memorable.”

One of Tratz’s recent stories involved two students taking their pet sharks on a journey in search of fish. As different students traveled around the classroom, they  portrayed characters such as Darth Vader and Godzilla.

Tratz guides the student storytelling by supplying Spanish sentences and tries to have students add drama to the story through acting.

Keeping the class engaged can be more challenging as students grow in their language proficiency. “Often my second-year students are familiar with the patterns I follow in storytelling and can start to get bored,” Tratz says. “I use some different techniques for the 200-level class such as a Spanish version of mad libs or a discussion of issues important to the students.”

Tratz has created over 150 homework assignments for his students since he began using the TPRS method. “While I would argue that TPRS is a student-centered approach to learning, a lot of the effort falls on the instructor,” Tratz says. “It does not require much creativity to give a student worksheets on grammar or vocabulary lists as is done with standard approach to language teaching. There is a lot more involved with preparation and planning when using the TPRS method.” The TPRS method still requires effort from the students, however. “The students who are engaged in class and involved with the storytelling are the ones that learn more,” Tratz says. “As always, students who do the homework assignments and devote time and effort to practicing are the most successful.”

Contact me at: