Joe Neilson-Teaching with novels


On the recommendation of Blaine Ray, I had the pleasure of heading down to Tucson and observing Joe Neilson.  I wanted to share the experience because I learn the best from watching what others do.

First off if you have never seen Joe…I will give a brief description.  He is FIT…he looks like he would be a soccer player or wrestler or even a runner.   This is a teacher that inspires through high energy, and it is no doubt that taking care of your body is a requirement.  I was curious to see what TPRS looks like after decades of teaching.  Does a TPRS teacher slow down after many years in the classroom? I was not sure what to expect from a TPRS teacher that has been teaching over 30 years…I often wonder if I can continue to be high energy in that way.  I now know that it is possible!

If you have read about Joe you know he teaches at a Catholic school and the demographics of his students is about what you would expect…a little bit of everything but really good kids.  At his school, I get the sense that he is a big deal…people’s faces lit up when we mentioned his name in the offices and hallways. He is known affectionately as “Profe.”

My colleague and I were blown away by the amount of student output we saw in all of Joe’s classes.  The level one kids during quarter 3 were speaking at a super high level, with unrehearsed/natural Spanish in order to contribute to their warm-up activities using present, preterit, imperfect, present perfect, pluscuamperfecto, along with reflexives, and IOPs.   It looked effortless for them…

This is after what…5 months of class? The speed and accuracy of their output was great…the speed was the thing that stands out the most to me.  Also, Joe stays in Spanish and requires that his students to the same.  In the level one class, I only heard him do one English comprehension check with “llegaste.”  This had affected me the most…requiring an all Spanish speaking environment is powerful and a change that I will be more consistent about implementing.

The level 2 and 3 classes were more of the same.  Joe maintains structure/routine in his classes.  He does some “freestyle” TPRS when he builds details on students writing warm activities.  You can tell he rides the creativity of his student actors. He uses cards to randomly select 3 students to read their statements (cartas de victimas).  This way, everyone eventually has an opportunity to share but all can help add details.

E.g.  Level 1 “El hombre no pagó la cuenta en el restaurante porque…”

Translation- “The man did not pay the bill in the restaurant because…

Level 3 “Te pido, Señor, que mis amigos, (no) tengan, sean, puedan, digan, estén…

(Catholic school)  I pray lord that my friends  (not) have, be, can, say, be…

Three students shared their responses and Joe would add more details…circle information…ask for student input…tell jokes… all while staying in the TL.

Then, right back to the structure of his lessons, which in this case was story-telling with thematic vocabulary.  Joe sometimes did this with his anchor novels.  I was surprised to see his classes using below level readers.  They clearly can read POBRE ANA much earlier but Joe used the novel to build more stories and details about the characters.  The class contributed to details of Ana’s story above and beyond what is found in the book….the more wild the details, the higher level of student interest and participation.

One of Joe’s classes was using OJOS DE CARMEN but these kids were also well beyond that reading level but he used the text to achieve higher order thinking and output from students about the characters and story plot. He actually used text explicit and text implicit questions and when students shared responses, it was great.  One student had a sentence that said…”quería que pensara.” She used this structure effortlessly like it was no big deal.  This was what I saw all day long, students using language in such a comfortable way.

Joe Neilson is an example of a TPRS master. The proof was displayed in the output of his students.  In each level they have acquired a tremendous amount of language and can use it naturally.  It is very clear that Joe has built tremendous relationships with these students.  They want to impress him and learn more and be apart of his classroom community.

Seeing an advanced TPRS teacher with their own students was a great experience.  If Joe is ever doing a workshop and you are ready for some advanced skills of TPRS, I highly recommend seeing him.  I use the word “advanced” because I get the sense that basic circling and simple PQA is something he seldom uses with this kids after decades of teaching.  As he is in the middle of quarter 3 it makes sense to be beyond those basics of TPRS.  He used the word modality to explain why he has evolved the way he expresses TPRS and it makes perfect sense.

I hope this was interesting…here is what I took away.


1.     Requiring a target language in class everyday is powerful.

2.     There is more in “simple” readers/novels than meets the eye.

3.     Students can contribute to curriculum every single day.

4.     No grammar is ever out of bounds… EVER.

5.     I must not underestimate a student’s ability to produce language in any level on a day-to-day basis.

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