The Chinese Teacher’s Ultimate Guide to TPRS
What do movies, jokes, songs and gossip all have in common?
They are all stories!
Stories are a powerful way to communicate ideas so that they stick long-term. We remember far more of what we hear and read in the context of a story than in a list of concepts and definitions. The keys to this truly are context and stories.
That is because our brains love stories.
As Jonathan Gottschall tells us in “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” “we are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
One of my most memorable experiences in a language class was a story that my professor told us about the character 兒 (儿 in Simplified Chinese script; ér – son or child). He told us a made-up story about the character, which he called the 糟糕极了 (zāo gāo jí le) Monster (the extremely terrible monster). The words from the story have stuck with me for more than 20 years.
You may already be aware that there is a language teaching method that leverages stories as the main feature of instruction. That method is TPRS.
In fact, those stories are co-created by the students, orally and interactively, as the teacher guides the class. Reading together and individually then follows to reinforce the lesson.
A growing number of Chinese language teachers have been using TPRS with Mandarin. I am one; I’ve been teaching Chinese with TPRS for several years. I thoroughly enjoy it and see positive results in my students’ language abilities every day, so I’m here to extol the virtues of this method.
What’s TPRS? Is It the Same as TPR?
Sometimes in language teaching methods classes, future teachers are introduced to TPR (Total Physical Response), but only later hear of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). So, the terms get confused.
In fact, TPR spurred ideas that developed into TPRS, but they are two distinct methods. Both have great usefulness, and both are comprehensible input-based. TPR was developed by James Asher in the 1970s, and involves acting and gestures for new words, or commands and actions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Spanish teachers Blaine Ray and Joe Neilson developed TPRS based around interactively-created stories. Their work was based on research in Second Language Acquisition, particularly that of Dr. Stephen Krashen.
After the teacher guides the class in co-creating a story orally, reading activities follow. Some reading is based on the class’s story, and some may be from a chapter book or other published material.
TPRS as described below is most often used with the first year or two of language classes, because it aims to give students that “feel” for the most useful essentials of the language. As students progress in their language abilities, other comprehensible input strategies can be added and TPRS-style story-asking can be adjusted to match the students’ greater levels of proficiency.
TPRS as a methodology also continues to grow and develop with many options for specific activities, as any online search will demonstrate! There are many TPRS teachers with helpful blogs and resources online, as well as publishers and trainers. (Some are listed towards the end of this blog post.)
You can even find TPRS videos online that use real native speakers of Chinese. You may even be able to find these on Chinese learning apps such as FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
3 Key Steps for Using TPRS with Your Chinese Class
The process of teaching Mandarin Chinese with TPRS is often summarized in three steps:
1. Establish meaning
2. Create an oral story
1. Establish meaning
Introduce a new phrase or word and show its English meaning on the board or screen. This step is brief and might include making up gestures for the new words and asking the students a variety of questions that involve those new words, allowing them to respond with short answers. Your goal is to begin connecting new phrases in Chinese to their meanings in English. Establishing meaning can also happen in the midst of a story as each new word comes up.
Unlike some textbook vocabulary lists, which may introduce 20 or more words on the same topic at once, TPRS introduces between one and three short phrases or individual words at a time. How many phrases to introduce depends on the teacher and the students. Teachers want to add enough for a pleasant amount of new language without overwhelming, that is, in the students’ Zone of Proximal Development. The goal is for students to experience new language deeply in the context of language they already know.
In TPRS, high frequency, structurally important words (like the most commonly used verbs and phrases) are generally those introduced first. In addition, some words that add interest to students’ experience in class may be included as those arise through class discussions. For example, 橄榄球 (găn lăn qiú – American football) isn’t at all a common word in China, but for several of my students, it is an important part of their daily lives, so we include it in class. We also use some words that are high-interest but not so high-frequency, like 糊里糊涂 (hú lĭ hú tú – confused) and 麻烦 (má fán – annoying).
2. Create an oral story
Now that you’ve introduced a few words you’ll be using, you want to use that limited amount of new language in a story-like format. The teacher asks, not tells, the story, and uses at least 90% Chinese to do so. Students contribute ideas to further the story, including who the characters are, where they are and some of the key aspects of what happens in the story.
The teacher has a general sense of where the story may go because of the language introduced. The teacher’s role is to ask many questions, both checking for students’ comprehension and using questions to get further details for the characters and plot. The teacher uses students’ answers to tell a story, adding more and reviewing the details already established every so often. Staying “in bounds” is very important; that is, limiting the story very few new words used, but using a full range of whatever grammar patterns are natural, plus previously introduced vocabulary.
Students may take several roles in the process of creating a story together: acting out parts of the story, drawing the details as they are discussed or writing the details of the story. Students as actors is a key element of TPRS. Student actors help reinforce the meaning by demonstrating it as the discussion progresses. The teacher serves as a subtle acting coach.
This collaborative process can be very engaging and fun. However, the teacher needs to keep aware of student comprehension throughout. Teachers do that through comprehension questions in Chinese as well as occasional brief glosses to the students’ native language by asking, “。。。是什么意思？” (…shì shén me yì sī – What does … mean?) about specific sentences or phrases.
Teachers also need to help students understand expectations so they contribute positively to the process. In their excitement at being able to contribute meaningfully to the story, sometimes students blurt out or speak in English, and need gentle redirection. Other students may not be used to so much back-and-forth communication in a class, or to building ideas collaboratively, and need gentle encouragement to show their comprehension and add suggestions. Cute answers are encouraged; they do not need to stick with real-life details. In fact, it is often much more interesting when students imagine.
For an example of the process of creating story recently with my level one, high school Chinese class: I first introduced a few new words: 看到了 (kàn dào le – saw), 太大了 (tài dà le – too big) and 和 (hé – and). We first used those words in questions and answers such as (in Chinese of course):
- Have you seen your mom today? (Ah, you have seen your mom.)
- Did you see your mom in the morning? (Yes.)
- At what time did you see your mom? (7:15)
- Did your mom also see you? (Yes.)
- Well, have you seen Chuck Norris today? (Yes!)
- When you saw Chuck, was he happy? (A little bit.)
- Have you seen friends today? (Yes, a lot of them.)
Oh, you have seen your friends AND Chuck Norris today. Not bad! By hearing and responding to so much Chinese, students get real language in their heads and start to speak naturally, at their own pace of development, over time.
As we moved into a story, I began to ask them questions about who or what saw; at a student’s suggestion with others agreeing, baby pandas were the subject. We spent about 20 minutes on questions and answers that were asked and answered in about 95% Chinese, both by me and by my students. We came up with a story with 72 baby pandas which were too big and too many for their house, which was too small. The pandas were at home watching “Kung Fu Panda 3” (pirated!) while eating bamboo and popcorn. Police saw them, though, and saw that they had a pirated copy of the movie, so they took the baby pandas to the local jail. Then the police watched “Kung Fu Panda 3” at the pandas’ house and ate their popcorn, but not the bamboo.
If we had used actors during that class, a volunteer student may have acted the role of a baby panda, another the police. At the end of our story, we spent a couple minutes for students to take turns retelling the details, each contributing a sentence. Retelling gives students an encouraging sense of their progress, and lets the teacher know they have understood and retained the language used in the story.
Through that somewhat silly story, my students answered many, many questions that caused them to process the meaning of the language and gain a feel for how those new words are used. While my students’ story was a bit comical, the language gained through it is useful in all kinds of settings. If the students had been more interested in being serious, that would have been fine, too. The teacher guides but does not control the process; it is truly student-centered, even when the students may have very basic language ability!
Many TPRS teachers now also use narration and discussion of videos or other means of co-creating a story-like discussion with the class as well. The goal is to facilitate our students’ hearing and responding to Chinese in an interesting context.
After a class period or two working orally, students are ready to read that language in context. Again limiting the new language, and using vocabulary and sentence patterns already introduced, the teacher prepares reading material that uses the same words as the story created with the class. Making changes to the written details compared to what was discussed helps to keep the reading from being too predictable.
For Chinese with its non-phonetic script, it is very helpful to hear the language read aloud, especially for beginning-level students. First, teachers guide reading aloud for and with the class, perhaps by showing reading on a screen that everyone can see and having a student or the teacher point at each word as it is read. The teacher may engage the class in discussion while reading by asking questions occasionally: comprehension questions about details in the reading, comparison and evaluation questions about the students’ reaction to what they are reading and prediction or summarizing questions. However, the main goal is reading a good story together, a story that the students themselves helped to create.
After some reading together, the teacher provides more reading with somewhat independent activities such as making a comic strip version of the reading, embedded reading (progressively more detailed and complex versions of a reading), and many other reading activities. The teacher may also use published materials for non-native learners of Chinese language, such as those by Terry Waltz, Haiyun Lu, and for upper levels, Mandarin Companion. Those materials are designed to limit vocabulary used, use mostly high-frequency language, and provide adequate repetition of vocabulary and language structure in interesting story contexts.
How to Adapt TPRS to Teaching the Chinese Language
The Chinese language has several unique aspects which need to be addressed in teaching with TPRS. I am indebted to ideas by Terry Waltz, PhD, especially for the approach to reading in Chinese she has developed, Cold Character Reading. My students’ average reading ability has increased through using her way of introducing students first to pinyin, then after plenty of oral discussion, providing reading material that uses those familiar words in fairly long, repetitious (but not boring) reading material.
When should teachers introduce pinyin?
During step one and two activities, new words are best shown in pinyin so that students become accustomed to pinyin spelling and how it lines up with the sound of the words. The first task is to connect the sound of the new words to their meaning, so leaving out characters at this point keeps students’ brains from trying to do too much at once. I spoke last summer with some other Chinese teachers about the experience many of us have had: we showed students something with both pinyin and characters. Later on, they had no retention of the characters in the reading, only the pinyin. Even if the characters were printed very large! So, providing pinyin for new language seems more effective.
When should teachers introduce characters?
During step three, after the words are already very familiar by sound, reading characters can begin without pinyin above or beside the characters. By starting from plenty of reading aloud activities, the students begin to “catch” the form of the characters and over time and repetition, begin to recognize those characters on their own. Students will vary in how many times they need to read characters in a meaningful context before the characters “stick.” I have polled my level one students these past two school years. While some say they begin to recognize characters after only two or three times in print, more of them say it takes more than 20 times to recognize it on their own, without hearing the words read aloud to them. So plenty of opportunity to read short, fun stories and passages will help them build their Chinese literacy.
Tones are sometimes a hang-up for non-native Chinese language students. Chinese teachers may use multiple means of helping students to retain the sound of the tones, such as colors and capitalization on written pinyin and gestures that reinforce the direction of the tones. However, the main means of teaching tones and Chinese inflection in general is simply by exposing the students to massive amounts of Chinese they can hear and understand. Over time, students naturally speak more and more like the Chinese they hear.
Character writing and composition skills require consideration, too. Teachers will need to decide how much to prioritize typing skills and hand-writing skills; TPRS Chinese teachers vary some in their approach. Character components and their meaning can be introduced in passing while the class is reading aloud together. However, once again, growth in the ability to read Chinese characters develops mainly through massive amounts of reading that students can understand.
But What About… ? Commonly-asked Questions About TPRS
What about speaking practice?
Sometimes teachers who are not used to comprehensible input-based instruction tend to want students to rehearse spoken Chinese, perhaps through repeating conversations that appear in a textbook. In a comprehension-based approach like TPRS, students begin responding in short phrases and words, but their output grows over time without forcing. Instead of reciting memorized dialogues and chunks of language, students begin to speak interpersonally and imaginatively.
What about writing practice?
Those who read more, write better. By providing plenty of narrative, descriptive, and conversational reading experiences, our students have more Chinese in mind when they write. Many TPRS teachers use “fluency writing” on occasion, which is allowing students to write on any topic they choose within their current Chinese, or perhaps sometimes writing to retell a story created in class. Students may track their progress over the school year: growth in number of characters, vocabulary used and complexity.
What about culture?
If students are creating stories from their own imaginations, then how will they experience Chinese culture? There are a number of ways to involve culture in a language class. One is to take advantage of topics that arise in class, and to introduce a Chinese product, practice or perspective that relates to the topic then being discussed. I think of that as “embedded culture.” Teachers may also use photographs, videos, storybooks and teacher-prepared reading that includes Chinese cultural information.
What about using students’ native language?
ACTFL’s guideline is to make at least 90% of instructional time in the target language, in our case, Mandarin Chinese. A thoughtful use of a small amount of the students’ native language is therefore not in contradiction to acknowledged best practice in language teaching. By using a small amount of English to clarify meaning and as one means of assessing students’ understanding, teachers support students in a highly immersive Chinese language environment while ensuring that Chinese is comprehensible to the students.
What about using a required textbook?
My first year using TPRS and comprehensible input strategies to teach Chinese, I still used a standard textbook just to have a scope and sequence ready for me. Standard textbook material can be somewhat stifling, though, since they are usually arranged around grammar points and one topic at a time. If it is possible, you might mix vocabulary from different textbook chapters rather than teach a whole set of words on one topic at a time. That is, instead of teaching ten kinds of greetings all at once, teach one greeting at a time in the course of introducing other highly useful language.
How Can I Learn More About TPRS?
Here are some ideas for getting started on the journey:
- Read about it. This way of teaching involves some adjustment to the role of the teacher and the way classroom dynamics play out, so reading about the process can help teachers get a sense for how it works. There are many online blogs where teachers of many languages share teaching strategies and guidance for new teachers. Specific to Chinese is the Ignite Chinese blog (where several Chinese teachers write, myself included) and the book “TPRS with Chinese Characteristics.”
- Watch others teaching. Visit classrooms of TPRS teachers who have offered their contact information to assist teachers new to this way of teaching a language. If visiting in person is not possible, online video by TPRS teachers is available on SchoolTube, Vimeo and YouTube. Searching “Chinese TPRS” will bring up a list of video examples.
- Connect with others online. Facebook, Twitter and other social media all help connect teachers who are sharing ideas and support. The hashtag #TPRS and #CI would be ones to look for on Twitter.
- Be patient with yourself. Try some aspect of TPRS just for a few minutes the first time. Don’t expect things to go perfectly all at once. Like any skill, it takes time and persistence.
The main skills to making TPRS work, in my opinion, are being able to ask a variety of questions unpredictably, speaking comprehensibly with the students and managing the classroom. Make sure students are responding to all questions or letting you know if they need clarification in order to understand.
TPRS can revolutionize your classes and your students’ language acquisition. I wish you well as you take the next steps!
Diane Neubauer is a high school Chinese teacher who has taught five-year-olds through adults. Besides learning and teaching Chinese language, she enjoys raising laying hens and spending time with her husband. She blogs at www.tprsforchinese.blogspot.com.