When was the last time you and your students genuinely had fun during your French lessons?
Was it… once upon a time?
If you actually have to make an effort to come up with an answer, you’re ready for a change.
Well, you’re in luck! The change I’m about to propose is trying TPRS—a new(ish) teaching method based on storytelling that has been rocking French classrooms since the ’90s.
To make language learning more fun, effective, personal and, yes, memorable!
Here’s everything you need to know about this exciting teaching strategy.
What Is TPRS?
TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.
It was invented by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher in Bakersfield, California, in 1990. He realized that students were disinterested in learning a language from textbooks, but did a lot better when hearing stories. The method focuses on giving students plenty of exposure to a language through listening practice, just like infants learn their native language.
What better way to do this than storytelling?
Ray also found that letting students act out the stories enables them to better internalize the language. TPRS expands upon the Total Physical Response method, in that movement is a key component of TPRS learning. It makes lessons also more memorable, as students are asked to really embrace the unique features of a story and overdramatize them through acting.
TPRS has tremendous potential for boosting French language acquisition. Fun, engaging and intellectual, some studies show it also proves to be significantly more effective in the classroom when properly implemented than traditional teaching methods. The method invites students to innovate and express themselves, providing them with an opportunity to also acquire invaluable social skills in the process.
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How to Teach TPRS: The 3 Steps of TPRS
The TPRS method is divided into three main steps: establish meaning, ask the story and reading.
Step 1: Establish Meaning
This is where you introduce and personalize the vocabulary words.
Start by writing them on the board with translations in English to help check meanings. The idea is to give students the tools to understand the story by removing difficult vocabulary and complex structures to study at the beginning.
Have students record the words or phrases in their notebooks. Read them out loud together in French. These new phrases are always repeated several times during the first step to facilitate internalization.
Use gestures, mnemonics or memory aids whenever possible. The idea is to really break away from boring, impersonal word lists and support memorization in whatever ways possible.
Seeing vocabulary in context is also a great way to establish and remember meaning. You should make sure to include as many authentic examples of the French words as possible, and this should include videos with native French speakers. For that, I recommend FluentU.
Another good tip at this stage is to ask students personal questions using the vocabulary. Ask students about each other. Seek unusual responses, responses that make them look good, responses that make everyone laugh. This will help them activate the words and hasten adoption through pronunciation and repetition in a stress-free environment.
Step 2: Ask the story
Don’t tell the story. Ask it!
In TPRS, you’re co-creating the story with your students. Where they were passive listeners in traditional classroom settings, they become active participants in this collaborative activity.
Achieve this by asking questions. Interact with your students, listen to them and identify interesting answers about the story. Encourage them to share unusual, creative details and use personal elements you’ve uncovered about them in the first step to really personalize the story.
Then find student actors to dramatize the story and act out scenes. Ask them to change the pace of their performance, and use bizarre or exaggerated acts. This will help make the story more memorable. Retell your story without actors if you need to, but make it fun!
Step 3: Reading
In this last step, the instructor delivers a story similar to what has been created as a collaboration. One option is to include a story you had pre-written before the session. It will perhaps lack the colorful details envisioned by the students, but will serve as a generic template for the reading.
Another suggestion is to give a dictée of the story you’ve imagined together. This will be more personalized and will activate both writing and reading skills.
Students should then be asked to read the text and use translations to clarify grammar and structure. Ask one student to read the text in French while you provide instant translations for difficult words as you come across them together.
Encourage free voluntary reading and ask students to read aloud in turns or to themselves. Rather than putting students on the line, the goal is to keep them motivated and make them feel a part of the storytelling process.
End the session by discussing the story. Highlight key cultural information behind the story and character choices, including what the character learns in the story, what prompts the hero to take certain actions and whether they would have done things differently.
5 Phenomenal TPRS Resources That’ll Uplift Your French Classroom
The Internet is a goldmine for ready-made TPRS lesson plans and resources for your French classes. Here are our favorite ones.
TPRS Teacher is a blog by Kristin Duncan, a French and Spanish teacher from Canada.
On her site, she shares plenty of TPRS tips, activities and resources you can immediately use in your French classroom. We particularly love her large database of handouts, as they will guide you through each step with lots of actionable insights and practical exercises to incorporate into your lessons.
Kristin also has a detailed selection of French novels, movies and story scripts to get you started with steps two and three. There are great pointers to get you inspired if you’re looking for real stories that will make your storytelling more fun.
Ben Slavic is considered one of the most reputable experts on all things TPRS. Ben has more than 30 years experience as a French teacher and currently teaches French to students at the high school and university level in Boulder, Colorado. He also specializes in AP French.
His blog features plenty of creative advice and materials to turn your lessons into TPRS magic. From TPRS posters to background music, handouts, quizzes and recommended websites, you’ll be equipped with all the essentials throughout each step of the process.
Susan Gross is another big name in the TPRS world. An educational consultant and workshop presenter, Susan taught languages for 33 years in public schools and uses research-based techniques to teach foreign languages.
You’ll also find plenty of mentoring for free in the downloadable guides in her resources section, along with lesson plans. If you’re unsure how to use them, fear not! Each plan includes detailed instructions on how to begin, develop and end a lesson. And yes, there are also quite a few interesting homework ideas!
This is a language learning program that uses TPRS strategies to teach French.
Use teaching tools to introduce difficult vocabulary and expressions you’ll use in your stories, including question word posters and word frequency lists. Browse their French novel samples for story inspiration.
Enliven your classes with one of their curriculum examples for French students of all levels and ages from kindergarten to twelfth grade.
The UCLA Center for World Languages site offers lots of educational TPRS materials and tips for instructors to use in the French classroom.
We particularly urge you to check out their resource section which includes detailed K-12 lesson plans that use the TPRS methodology. Expect plenty of help to get you started, from scrabble grids to get you through the first steps, storyboards and story grids that cover the second part of TPRS, and character portraits and reading tips to help you end your lessons in beauty.
Oh! Let’s not forget that this site also features a wealth of links to reputable TPRS sources, if all that reading leaves you hungry for more!
Now that TPRS holds no secrets for you, all that you need is to get in that classroom and get started!
What are you waiting for?
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach French with real-world videos.